Peter Zelinka: Blog en-us (C) Peter Zelinka [email protected] (Peter Zelinka) Mon, 27 Nov 2023 04:42:00 GMT Mon, 27 Nov 2023 04:42:00 GMT Peter Zelinka: Blog 120 120 2023 Astro Gear Recommendations 2023 Astro Gear Recommendations

Last Updated - November 26, 2023

I'm going to start off this article by listing my recommended gear for 2023.  If you've been following me for a while, then most of this will actually look pretty familiar.  I don't update my gear that often, especially when I find something that works well.

That's about all you need for a lightweight, portable, and easy-to-use setup!  This is a big investment though, especially if you are purchasing most of this equipment at the same time.  However, I can personally vouch for everything listed here, as I've been using it for years now.  You won't be able to photograph those tiny little galaxies, or small nebula, but you'll still have plenty of objects to capture.  If you're still a beginner, this setup will last for years.  Once you've mastered it, you can always upgrade the telescope to something larger.

This Orion photo was taken with my ZWO ASI 533MM camera, William Optics RedCat 51mm, ZWO RGB filters, and the AM5 mount.  The data was captured from a very dark sky near Kanab Utah, and I gathered about 3 hours of data total.



When it comes to astrophotography mounts you have a lot of choices!  I used a simple SkyGuider Pro for many years, and while this did a nice job, it was fairly limited.  The biggest problem was the lack of go-to functionality.  That meant I had to learn the night sky to find the objects I wanted to photograph.  A lot of my students are still using star trackers and getting great images!  However, if you're ready for an upgrade then there's never been a better time!

The ZWO AM5 is currently one of the best go-to mounts on the market.  It's lightweight, portable, and easy to use!  It currently retails for around $2,300, which includes the mount and carbon-fiber tripod.  This combo works great, and keeps the size and weight down.  You could attach the AM5 to some sturdier tripod legs, but I don't think it's necessary.  

One of the main features of the AM5 is the harmonic drive.  This is different from a traditional equatorial mount, like my SkyWatcher EQ6R Pro.  The AM5's harmonic drive is much more powerful, and doesn't require counterweights!  (Although you will want to use one if you have a larger telescope)  It can be a bit scary at first to mount your equipment without balancing, but you'll soon see that the AM5 can handle it without a problem.

Whether you're upgrading from a star tracker, or looking to get another go-to mount, the AM5 is the perfect solution.  It can even be controlled entirely from your smartphone or tablet.  This is a welcome feature on those cold winter nights.  Once you've completed your polar alignment and focused the telescope you can head inside and warm up.  The rest of the workflow can be handled through the software.  Technically the AM5 does come with its own smartphone app, but I don't necessarily recommend it.  You're better off using an ASIAir to control the mount. 

There are currently two variants of the ASIAir available - the Mini and the Plus.  The Plus is the flagship model and has everything you need, including four 12V power outputs, four USB ports, and a WiFi antenna.  The Mini does the same exact thing, it's just way smaller and lighter.  It does not have the USB 3.0 ports, or a power switch.  Beyond that, the two are functionally the same.  If you want to save $100, go with the Mini.  When you've got the hang of the software interface, you can get the entire workflow completed within 20 minutes.  Then you can sit back and relax!  I normally configure my mount to run all night long, then head to bed.  When I wake up in the morning the telescope is pointed back up towards Polaris and everything has shut down.  Then I can bring the gear inside, copy the photos to my laptop, and begin editing.

I still have a SkyWatcher EQ6R Pro, but I don't use it as much anymore.  It's just too much hassle, especially compared to the AM5.  On the off-chance we actually have a clear night in the Pacific Northwest I will setup both mounts side by side though.  In terms of performance, I don't see any real difference between the two.  However, I'm using a fairly short focal length and lightweight setup.  If I had a larger telescope attached, I may start to notice a difference in tracking capabilities between the two.

When you factor in the size, weight, price, and capabilities of the ZWO AM5 I honestly believe it is one of the best go-to mounts available.  The only caveat is that it is entirely controlled by software, there aren't even any manual clutches on the mount.  Theoretically this could become problematic down the road.  I know some people still prefer those old fashioned hand-controllers, which can configure the mount without any optional software.  I personally hate the hand-controllers though.  To be clear, the AM5 does ship with a small joystick controller which emits a WiFi signal.  You can then connect to that WiFi with your phone / tablet and control the AM5 with the ASI Mount app.  It's similar to the ASIAir, but very basic by comparison.

While not as exciting as a bright nebula or distant galaxy, the Pleiades is always fun to shoot during the winter months.  This photo was captured with the ASI 2600MC camera and a RedCat 51mm.



Before we get into the telescopes, I need to clarify a few points.  There are a lot of telescopes out there, and I've only ever used a few of them.  Also, I like to keep my astro setup as small and light as possible.  With this in mind, my telescope recommendations are fairly limited.  I'd recommend checking out AstroBlender, and other content creators, for more information on larger telescopes.  They've got much more insight and expertise than me on this topic.  I'm going to touch on three telescopes today.

First up we have the William Optics RedCat 51mm.  I've been using the SpaceCat variant since 2019 and it has done a great job.  It's sharp, easy to focus, lightweight, portable, and even comes with a built-in bahtinov mask.  The only real downside is the short focal length - 250mm.  This does not pair well with a full-frame sensor, as most objects look quite small in the frame.  That's why I prefer using dedicated astro cameras with Micro 4/3 or 1" sensor sizes.  Since these sensors are so small, they magnify the field of view by a factor of 2 and 2.7 respectively.  Therefore, my little SpaceCat now has a focal length equivalent between 500mm - 675mm when using the right camera.  That's the perfect field of view for many nebulae and galaxies!  

If you plan on using a full-frame or APS-C sensor, then you'll want more zoom.  This brings us to the William Optics RedCat 71mm.  This is the "big brother" of the RedCat 51mm.  It has all the same benefits of the smaller telescope, but it has a longer focal length (350mm) and a wider aperture.  Two of my workshop students have used this telescope, and both times I was impressed by the image quality and sharpness of the stars.  It was substantially larger than the RedCat 51mm though, and twice the price!  However, if you're looking for a little extra zoom, this would be a good choice.

My latest recommendation would be the Askar V telescope.  This telescope has a unique modular design, something I haven't seen before.  Basically, it comes with a 60mm objective lens and an 80mm objective lens.  These change the focal length of the telescope, and they can be combined with either a reducer, extender, or flattener.  As you mix and match these pieces, you can achieve a focal length as wide as 270mm, or as long as 600mm.  I've been using the 80mm + Reducer for the past month, and this gives me a focal ratio of f/4.8 at 384mm.  When paired with the ZWO ASI 533MM, I have a great field of view for a number of smaller objects, like the Iris Nebula.  

The Askar V currently retails for $1,695, nearly the same price as the RedCat 71mm.  However, the Askar V has much more potential.  You can easily change the configuration to match the target you want to photograph.  Maybe tonight you want to capture the moon.  Put on the 80mm lens and attach the teleconverter.  You now have 600mm at f/7.5, perfect for some lunar photography.  (Especially if paired with a small sensor for that extra FOV boost.)  Or if you want to do some wide-field nebula shots, attach the 60mm lens and reducer.  You now have 270mm at f/4.5.  

My test period with the Askar V is ending soon, and I have a choice.  Do I return the telescope and go back to using the RedCat 51mm?  Or do I purchase the Askar V?  Based on the performance so far, I'm going to purchase this telescope.  I love the modular design, how easy it is to switch things around, and the compact size of the scope.  I'm basically getting 6 telescopes in one, all for the same price as the RedCat 71mm.  Oh, one other important note!  The RedCat 71mm comes with a bahtinov mask built into the lens cap, which is incredibly helpful.  I asked Askar if they plan on adding this feature to the telescope, but apparently William Optics patented this design.  That means no one else can do something similar.  (Great...)  Therefore, you'll want to grab the 3d printed bahtinov mask designed for the Askar V. (I just bought one for myself today.)

If you're still dead-set on getting a larger telescope, then be sure you know what you're in for.  The more zoom you have, the more accurate your polar alignment, guiding, and tracking needs to be.  If you plan on shooting over 1000mm, then it's a good idea to consider purchasing an Off-Axis Guider.  These will give better guiding than a traditional auto-guider and guide-scope.  You're also going to need a reliable mount that can track accurately all night long.  The AM5 should fit the bill nicely, although if you are using a lot of zoom then you may want to swap out those carbon-fiber legs for something a bit more heavy-duty. 

If you are planning on getting a larger telescope, and using the ZWO AM5 mount, then you'll want to buy the optional counterweight bar and pier extension.  These will make the AM5 safer to use with a large scope.  You'll also need to find a 20mm counterweight to fit onto that AM5 counterweight rod (my SkyWatcher EQ6R counterweight does not fit, nor does my SkyGuider Pro weight)

For those that are still new to astrophotography, I'd highly recommend purchasing a smaller telescope first.  This will let you ease into the workflow, without getting in over your head.  A larger telescope just makes everything more difficult...


This photo of the Horsehead Nebula was captured from my light polluted backyard in Port Angeles Washington.  Thanks to my monochrome sensor and H-Alpha filter, I was able to pull out the beautiful red clouds around the Horsehead.  This would not have been possible with my stock Nikon DSLR.



If you're still using a DSLR, then you should consider upgrading to a dedicated astro camera as soon as possible.  Out of all the equipment I've purchased over the years, this was what ultimately had the biggest impact on what I was able to capture.  With a dedicated astro camera I could finally capture beautiful narrowband photos, like the shot of the Horsehead Nebula.  Most of the nebulae in the night sky emit H-Alpha light.  This is emitted at 656 nm, which most DSLR sensors block out.  That means a stock DSLR is simply not capable of capturing the photos you want.  While you could get the IR/UV Cut filter modified or removed, I'd rather see you invest that money into a dedicated astro camera.

The dedicated astro cameras have numerous benefits over DSLRs.  The most important are the built-in cooling system and improved low-light performance.  This translates to much cleaner photos at night, especially during the summer.  As the sensor gets colder, the thermal noise in your photos will drop substantially.  A DSLR has no way to cool down, whereas a dedicated astro camera can maintain -20C all night long!  Now that you are starting to see just how important these improvements are, let's talk about the major choices.

You've got two main considerations when upgrading your camera.  Mono or color?  Sensor size?  These will have a profound impact on your entire workflow.  A monochrome camera will provide higher quality images than a color camera.  (Realistically though, I doubt most people could tell the difference between a color or mono camera's final JPEG.)  If you capture lots of data, and are good at processing, it really won't matter what you have.  As for the sensor size, that will make a big difference.  The smaller the sensor, the more magnification you will get with any telescope.  A Full Frame sensor has a crop factor of 1.0.  As you go down to a APS-C, Micro 4/3, and 1" sensor you increase the crop factor.  (1.5x, 2x, 2.7x)  This is why I prefer smaller sensors.  I can easily fill the frame with nebulae and galaxies, even at 250mm.  If you've got a large telescope already though, then stick with either a Full Frame or APS-C sensor.  The last thing you need is any more magnification!

If you want to keep things simple and cheap, get a color dedicated astro camera.  The ASI 533MC would be a great choice to pair with any of the telescopes mentioned above.  The 1" sensor performs well in low-light, and has a crop factor of 2.7x.  The color sensor also saves you a lot of money in filter costs.  You should only need a narrowband filter, and possibly a UV/IR filter for RGB imaging.  The ASI 533MC currently retails for $800.  

For those that want a higher-resolution camera, check out the ASI 2600MC.  It has an APS-C sensor with 26 megapixels, which should be enough for most people.  I've been testing this camera for the past 6 months and it has done a great job!  The sensor does very well, even when shooting in narrowband.  There is one thing to be aware of though!  If you use a Gain below 100, you may notice horizontal banding in your final stacked image.  This is due to how the camera sensor is designed.  Basically, from 0 - 99 Gain the camera is in a "low-sensitivity" mode.  Once the Gain reaches 100+, it changes to a "high-sensitivity" mode.  I recommend leaving the camera at 100 Gain most of the time.  The ASI 2600MC retails for $1,800, which is a big leap up from the 533MC!  If you want the extra resolution and larger sensor though, it may be worth the investment.  

Another factor to consider is the sensor resolution.  Most people prefer high-resolution sensors, as evidenced by the popularity of the D850 and Sony A7R series cameras.  It seems every manufacturer is pushing for ever higher resolutions.  This is all great in theory, but in practice it leads to some serious problems.  First of all, the higher resolution creates larger file sizes.  The ASI 2600MC camera has a ~6,000 x ~4,000 sensor (26 megapixels) and the FITS files are each 50mb in size.  If I capture 100 images, that's 5 GBs of data!  You can see how this will quickly fill up the storage on the ASIAir, as well as my laptop.  Meanwhile, my little ASI 533MM, with its 3000 x 3000 sensor (9 megapixels), only uses 17mb per FIT file.  These smaller files are much easier to process and store.  For that reason, I actually prefer lower resolution cameras.  Unless you are printing lots of large photos, I don't see much point in chasing higher resolution sensors.

Finally, let's talk about the cameras I actually have and use.  First up is the ASI 1600MM, this was my very first dedicated astro camera and it did a great job.  In hindsight, the amp glow around the corners was annoying, and forced me to take dark frames.  Then I used the ASI 294MC, a color camera.  This had the worst amp glow I've ever seen, almost like a flashlight shining across the edge of the sensor!  However, a good set of dark frames could completely eliminate the amp glow, so it's really not that big of a deal.  In 2022 my girlfriend purchased the ASI 533MM camera and we've been using it ever since.  This camera has no amp glow, a 2.7x magnification factor, and great low-light performance.  The only downside is the square crop factor, which is a bit boring for me personally.  I prefer the rectangular images with the APS-C and Full Frame sensors.  I'm currently debating if I should purchase the ASI 2600MC.  It would make a great replacement to the aging 294MC, but the $1,800 price tag is pretty steep. 

Most recently, I've been testing the ASI 2600MC Duo.  This is a unique camera that has an auto-guider sensor, the 220MM Mini, built into the design!  That means you no longer need a separate auto-guider and guide scope, or OAG (Off-Axis Guider).  After testing this camera for 4 nights with an f/7.5 aperture, 600mm, and Optolong L-Enhance filter, I am very impressed!  I figured the auto-guider sensor would not see a single star, how could it under such adverse conditions?!  Believe it or not, I was able to get consistent guiding performance around 0.5 - 1.0 arc seconds of total error for upwards of 6 hours each night.  (When paired with the ZWO AM5 mount).  Based on these results, I would recommend this camera for anyone who is shooting above 1000mm and wants a color camera.  Thanks to the great 2600MC sensor, and the 220MM mini auto-guider, you get the best of both in one package.  Most importantly, you no longer need to invest in an off-axis guider or large guide scope.  


This photo was captured in my light polluted backyard as well.  I used the ASI 1600MM and two narrowband filters - H-Alpha and Oxygen.  This allowed me to showcase the stunning details of the Heart Nebula


Filters - Warning!

Before I go any further, we need to talk about quality control and false advertising.  When you purchase filters, you are expecting to capture a certain amount of light within a given range.  (I.E. 90% transmission at 656nm)  However, there's a chance that the filter you receive will not perform as well as it should.  Watch this video for more information.

With this in mind, I'm hesitant to personally recommend any filters!  The last thing I want to do is advocate for a bad or deceptive filter.  I have personally used the Optolong L-Enhance filter (on my color camera), and the ZWO LRGB + Narrowband filters (on my mono camera).  These filters do a fine job, besides some distracting flares around bright stars.  Whether or not they are performing precisely as advertised is unknown, all I can say is my photos look pretty good!

The only way to verify that you're getting accurate filters is to personally test them with a spectrometer.  You'd need something like this, along with special software to analyze the data.  This is not reasonable for 99% of people.  Therefore, we're all taking a risk whenever we buy an astro filter.  We just hope it will work as intended.

The safest bet when purchasing filters is usually Chroma or Astrodon.  These are supposed to be the best filters on the market.  There's only one problem - they cost a fortune!  For comparison, the Chroma 2" LRGB filters cost $1925.  Meanwhile, the ZWO 2" LRGB filters cost $300

I was already struggling to afford a new camera and telescope when I decided to upgrade my gear.  There was no way I was going to drop another $2,000 just for some filters.  I chose the least expensive route and the ZWO filters have done a fine job.  While the flares and halos around bright stars are annoying, I can deal with it.  However, if you want the best quality photos from a reputable company, then Chroma is probably the way to go.  Every other manufacturer will likely have less accurate filters by comparison.

This photo of the Lagoon Nebula was captured with the ASI 1600MM, the ZWO RGB + H-Alpha filters, and a RedCat 51mm telescope.  While the filters I used were very cheap, the final image turned out quite nice!  This just goes to show that you don't necessarily need to spend $2,000+ on filters.


Filter Recommendations

If you purchased a color camera, then you should only need 1 or 2 filters.  I'd recommend purchasing a dual-band narrowband filter, like the Optolong L-Enhance.  I use this filter with my ASI 294MC and ASI 2600MC, and it allows me to capture great nebula photos even from a light polluted suburb.  The filter blocks out all light pollution wavelengths, while letting through the specific wavelengths being emitted by the nebula.  Since this is a H-Alpha + Oxygen filter, your nebula will have that nice red color.

If you prefer the more abstract Hubble Color Palette, with its yellows, blues, and greens, then you'll likely want a monochrome sensor instead.  This will allow you to capture specific wavelengths independently.  You can then choose which color channel they get mapped to in post-processing.

Since I mainly use a monochrome camera, I needed to purchase 7 filters!  LRGB and H-Alpha, Oxygen, and Sulphur.  Even though I purchased the cheapest ZWO filters available, I still ended up spending $800+.  If you want some higher-end filters, you're looking at well over $2,000.  You'll also need a filter wheel to house all these filters, and that will cost between $300 - $400.  As you can see, monochrome is a big investment!  If you're still a beginner, you may want to stick with a color camera for now...

As you are looking at the various filter options, you'll see there are different sizes - 1.25", 2", 36mm unmounted, etc...  The cheapest filters are 1.25", which should work fine for the setup I have listed up top.  However, these filters aren't necessarily future-proofed.  If you decide to purchase a full-frame sensor, you may notice vignetting caused by the filters.  This is why I recommend purchasing a good set of 2" filters right out of the gate.  The 2" will cost more, but they should last for years to come, regardless of the camera or telescope you buy.  I'd rather you buy a good set of filters once, than have to buy two sets of filters in the long run.

The Elephant's Trunk Nebula, as seen with the Askar V telescope in the 60mm + Reducer configuration.  The ASI 2600MC camera did a great job too, along with the Optolong L-Enhance filter.



One accessory I recommend everyone purchase is a dew heater strip.  This will be one of the best (and cheapest) investments you can make!  A dew heater has a few hidden benefits.  Obviously it will prevent dew / frost from settling on your lens.  It can be attached to a wide-angle lens, small telescope, or telephoto lens.  The reason I recommend them though is because they keep the glass at the same temperature all night long.  This prevents the focus from shifting as the telescope cools down.  In my experience, the telescope focus will shift drastically over the span of 30 minutes, as the ambient air temperature drops.  This is due to the glass and elements shifting slightly as they get colder.  If you have a dew heater installed though, this shouldn't be a problem!

You'll also need a battery to power your mount, ASIAir, and camera's cooling system.  I used a Jackery 240Wh battery for many years, and it worked fine for my SkyGuider Pro.  However, it was not enough for my AM5 and ASIAir.  I've noticed that the battery is usually dead by the morning.  Therefore, I would recommend at least a Jackery 500 battery.   This should be able to handle an entire night's worth of astro, even on a cold winter night.  If you want even more juice though, get the Jackery 1000.  It's very expensive, but it will last multiple nights of shooting.

An auto-guider will send commands to your go-to mount, making it track much more accurately.  I have seen expensive Rainbow Astro mounts, which are supposedly very good, have trouble taking sharp exposures past 60 seconds.  This can be incredibly disappointing...  However, a simple auto-guider and guide scope will fix that problem.  The auto-guider will watch the stars all night long.  If it detects the star moving out of a defined area, it will send a pulse to the go-to mount.  This can keep your total tracking error below 1 arc-second throughout the night.  If you purchase one of the telescope that I recommended, then you can get an inexpensive auto-guider and guide scope like the ZWO 30mm f/4 and ASI 120MM Mini.  I've been using this combo for years and have not had any problems.  

I've been known to have a wild mess of cables dangling from my astro setups.  This hasn't gotten me into any trouble (yet), but I have seen people rip cables out accidentally at night.  This can be a very expensive mistake...  If you want to stay organized, then these 3d printed pieces may be a good idea.  They can be mounted to your ASIAir or camera to control the long cables that normally ship with the astro equipment.  

This image was actually captured with a Nikon D750 and SkyGuider Pro.  I gathered around 1 hour of data, maybe less.  Since I was in a very dark sky near Canyonlands Utah, Rho Ophiuchi stood out very nicely from the background.


Final Thoughts

The gear I've listed today should do a phenomenal job for most astrophotographers.  Whether you live in a light-polluted city, or rural area, this gear will allow you to capture beautiful astro images.  The big concern is the cost.  Times are tough for all of us, and dropping $5,000+ on astro equipment may not be feasible.  In that case, I'd recommend you start off with the mount purchase first.  I'm guessing you already have a DSLR and telephoto lens, so at least you can use that gear with the AM5 (or another go-to mount) to begin capturing some data.  The new mount will make the entire process of capturing data much easier.  If you can afford it, I'd get the ASIAir Mini as well.  This will make it easy to control everything from your smartphone / tablet.  Alternatively, you can get a free software program like NINA to handle things.

If you haven't done so already, get a good battery to power your new setup.  I'd recommend a Jackery,
specifically the 500wh battery.  This should be just enough to get you through a full winter's night of astrophotography. 

When you've got the funds for a telescope, I'd recommend the Askar V.  This has 6 different configurations that range from 270mm all the way to 600mm.  With this flexibility you shouldn't need another telescope for 5+ years.  You can easily attach a 2" narrowband filter, like the Optolong L-Enhance, inside the rear thread of this telescope.  That will cut through any light pollution and allow you to see the nebula in great detail.  One benefit of purchasing a telescope early is that you can easily attach an auto-guider and guide scope to it.  The auto-guider will keep your mount tracking much better during long exposures.

Last but not least we have the dedicated astro cameras, I'd recommend either the ASI 533MC or the ASI 2600MC.  The color sensors will save you over $1,000 in filter-related costs, which is why I recommend them for most beginners.  I still like my monochrome sensors, but I'll admit the color cameras can be much easier and faster to use at night.  

For more information on deep space astrophotography, be sure to check out my Deep Space Course on  It has over 100 videos that will teach you everything you need to know.  We've got multiple workflows, depending on the gear that you have.  The course is designed for both beginners and intermediate shooters.  Click here for more information.

The Iris Nebula is a difficult target that's best photographed from a dark sky location.  I used the ASI 2600MC Duo camera and the Askar V telescope for a wide field of view

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) am5 astro astrophotography dedicated astro camera deep space gear recommendation redcat telescope what should I buy william optics zwo Tue, 14 Feb 2023 16:12:10 GMT
Fornax LightTrack II Review Initial Impressions

I've spent the last 4 years using almost every star tracker on the market, with one notable exception - the Fornax LighTrack II.  I had seen this tracker here and there on the internet, but never had a chance to actually try one out.  Thankfully, one of my supporters, Kip, had this mount and was willing to lend it out for a few months.  Unfortunately, I now live in the Pacific Northwest and have had exactly 1 clear night in the last 3 months.  Still, I was determined to at least create a tutorial on the Fornax LighTrack II. 

The Fornax mount is unlike any other star tracker on the market, which can be a good thing or bad thing, depending on your point of view.  For example, most star trackers are fairly cheaply built, and have terrible tracking accuracy when shooting at 200mm+.  At best, you might be able to shoot 60 seconds before noticing star trails.  However, the LighTrack II claims to have exceptional tracking accuracy, allowing much longer exposures with telephoto focal lengths. 

The LighTrack II requires a constant 12V power connection, like any Go-To Mount.  Therefore, you will need to bring an external power battery with you to use this tracker.  This could be a deal-breaker if you plan on hiking with this mount.  The other star trackers on the market all have either internal batteries or AA battery compatibility.  The LighTrack II is marketed more towards deep space shooters than Milky Way photographers, so I don't think it's that big a of a problem.  Most likely you'll be setting up the Fornax mount in your backyard or within 100 feet of your vehicle at a dark-sky destination.

The Fornax has another noticeably difference, the "friction plate", or swinging arm, that's responsible for moving your camera with the speed of the stars.  This is a big difference from the other star trackers, which usually have internal gear drives.  Gear drives are much more common, but that doesn't necessarily make them good.  The gear drives found in most star trackers have lots of issues, which usually result in blurry stars!  I've personally dealt with this many times, and it is very frustrating.  You can do everything right, but the tracker still messes things up and your photos are ruined!  A friction drive sounds like a nice upgrade!  

Unfortunately, this friction drive also has a very serious drawback - you can only shoot for 107 minutes!  Once that time span elapses, the arm has moved through its entire range and needs to be reset.  You have to "wind it up" again to begin tracking.  During this "wind up" process, your composition will be moved and you'll need to adjust your ballhead and camera to re-find the object you were photographing.  This can be exceptionally cumbersome if using narrowband filters or shooting at a very high focal length...


Using the LighTrack II

Some things never change...  Like almost every other piece of astrophotography equipment on the market, the manual and instructions for the LighTrack II are barebones.  Here's a link to the official user manual, all 5 pages of it.  If the manual is only 5 pages long this should be an easy setup process, right?  Not quite.  Fornax also has an Installation Guide that is equally lacking in specifics.  I don't mean to harp on Fornax exclusively, I have the same problems with iOptron and SkyWatcher

Honestly, a lack of clear instructions is what prompted me to begin creating tutorials back in 2018.  I couldn't find any good videos on how to actually use my SkyTracker Pro at the time, so I had to figure it out myself.  Then I decided to create a little video to show others what I learned, and hopefully make their lives a little easier.  This eventually turned into a massive, years-long project to create my Star Tracker Courses and the numerous YouTube videos for the various trackers. 

Despite having over 1,000 hours invested into star trackers and astrophotography over the past 4 years, I still found myself initially confounded by the Fornax LighTrack II.  The design is a radical departure from the gear-driven mounts that most of us are familiar with.  To make matters worse, while there are some good videos on the Fornax, none of them show how to actually use the darn thing.  


At the very least, I wanted to write down the main steps for using the Fornax LighTrack II:

1. Find Polaris overhead and get oriented 

2. Attach LighTrack to latitude base and tripod

3. Dial in your current latitude on the wedge / base

3. Crouch behind the tracker, and verify Polaris is centered above it

4. Attach the polar scope

5. Find Polaris inside the polar scope

6. Use the azimuth and altitude adjustment screws on the wedge / base to place Polaris on the reticle as required (see here)

7. Attach ballhead / declination bracket with counterweight

8. Attach camera to ballhead / dec bracket

9. If using dec bracket, balance the camera in both Right Ascension and Declination (see here)

10. Attach power cable to external battery and turn on the LighTrack

11. Use the buttons on the tracker to "arm" the friction plate

12. You now have 107 minutes before you reach the end of the tracking distance (and must reset the friction plate)

13. Find the object you want to photograph and get it centered up in your camera

14. Focus on the stars in the image

15. Turn off Vibration Control and Auto-Focus

16. Determine camera settings

17. Begin taking photos


I also created a full-length tutorial to show exactly how to use the LighTrack II.  You can watch the video below:



First Night with the LighTrack

The main selling point of the LighTrack II is that it provides unparalleled tracking accuracy.  I was pleasantly surprised to see just how far Fornax pushed the mount during their tests.  Achieving sharp stars at 5400mm over the span of 2 minutes is no easy task!  Even an expensive, large, and heavy Go-To mount would have trouble with that.  Still, I wanted to give things a try and see how the average person might fair when using the LighTrack II from their backyard.

First, let's clarify one important point - the tracking accuracy is only as good as your polar alignment.  This was a problem I ran into on my first night with the tracker.  I found this particular polar scope to be more difficult than the typical iOptron scope.  As you can see here, you must rotate the polar scope to a specific spot, in line with the star Kochab.  This can be somewhat challenging if you don't have the best eyesight.  I much prefer the simplicity of the iOptron or SkyWatcher reticules.  When using a SkyWatcher or iOptron polar scope you can use a free app on your smartphone which will tell you exactly where to put Polaris on the reticle.  The only challenge is finding Polaris inside the polar scope, but that can be done fairly quickly with some practice.  

Once I completed my polar alignment, which wasn't perfect, I began taking some test photos at 2 and 4 minutes.  I saw star trails in my photos, indicating a few potential problems.  These include - an unbalanced setup, a bad polar alignment, or errors with the tracker itself.  In this case, my polar alignment was the likely culprit.  Thankfully, there's an independent "arm" for the polar scope.  This allowed me to move the polar scope out of the way of my camera, and still see Polaris.  Unfortunately the sky was rapidly clouding up, and I was unable to check my polar alignment again.

After a fairly unsuccessful night, I at least had some experience with the tracker.  Here's what I learned:



  • The polar scope reticle wasn't as easy to use as SkyWatcher or iOptron.  I would replace the polar scope with an iOptron model and use a Polar Finder app to determine where to position Polaris on the reticle


  • You really don't have a lot of time to shoot.  The "friction plate" may improve the tracking accuracy of the mount, but I hate that you can only shoot for a max of 107 minutes before it needs reset.  Realistically, it might take you 5 - 30 minutes to find the object you want to photograph, and center it in the frame.  You may also need to re-do your polar alignment during this time, if you accidentally kicked the tripod, or the latitude base twisted slightly.  That could be another 5 minutes wasted.  Your shooting time has diminished to ~70 minutes now.  However, you'll want to stop your exposures every 15-20 minutes to check on things.  Maybe your focus has shifted slightly, and the stars are blurry; or there's dew/frost forming on the lens and it needs wiped down; or the camera battery died.  Either way, this will further eat into your 107 minutes.


  • Edit:  In the example above, I complained about how long it may take to find the object you want to photograph, and how that would take away time from your 107 minutes.  However, there's a simple workaround.  "Arm the mount" so it's ready to begin shooting.  Then turn it off!  Now you've got all the time in the world to find the object.  Once you're ready, turn on the mount and begin shooting.  


  • Remember, the friction plate must be set before you attempt to find and center your object.  I made this mistake on the first night.  I spent about 2 minutes framing up the Pleiades and dialing in my camera settings.  As I was about to begin taking my first photo, I remembered I still needed to set the friction plate to the max distance, and give me the full 107 minutes of shooting time.  As I slewed the friction plate over, my composition was lost.  Now I had to spend another few minutes centering the Pleiades back up.  Not a big deal in this case, but I would have been very frustrated if this was the Rosette Nebula at 600mm.  (a real challenge to find!)





One of the major problems I have with the Fornax LighTrack II is the total cost.  The current retail price of the tracker itself is ~$500 USD, which is on par with the other trackers.  However, the Fornax doesn't include most accessories (unlike the SkyGuider Pro and Star Adventurer).  Therefore, you'll also need to buy a polar scope, latitude base, and possibly the counterweight kit (if you plan on using a telephoto lens / telescope).  Their prices are as follows:

LighTrack II  ~$500 USD

Counterweight Kit  ~$400 USD

Latitude Base  ~$400 USD

Polar Scope  ~$150 USD  (I don't actually recommend this polar scope, but it seems to be the default choice.)

Auto-Guider Cable  ~$20


If you want the "Full Bundle" of Fornax gear, you're looking at a ~$1,500 USD investment.  To make matters worse, I couldn't find any website where the prices were listed in USD, it was all Euros.  This could add additional fees and shipping complications to many US-based astrophotographers.  For those in Canada, Fervent Astronomy seems to sell the LighTrack II and accessories.

Meanwhile, I could get a SkyGuider Pro for ~$500 (which includes the latitude base, polar scope, and counterweight kit), along with an auto-guider and guide scope for an additional $250.  For a total investment of ~$750 I could have a lightweight, portable, and dependable tracking mount that can be used for both wide-angle Milky Way photography and deep space astrophotography.  With the auto-guider configured properly, I can easily shoot 3+ minute exposures at 600mm on the SkyGuider Pro. 

Alternatively, you could buy something like the SkyWatcher EQ6-R Pro for a bit more than the Fornax full-package.  The EQ6-R Pro has a major advantage over the LighTrack II - Go-To functionality.  A Go-To mount can automatically find any object you want to photograph, whether that's the Heart Nebulae, Andromeda Galaxy, or anything else!  This makes shooting at night much easier.  With the LighTrack II, and all the other star trackers, you must find the object you want to photograph manually.  It can take over 20 minutes to find and center-up the nebula.

I should mention that you can always attach the Fornax mount to a cheaper latitude base, like this SkyWatcher one that costs $65.  But you'll still need to purchase the over-priced counterweight kit and a polar scope to use with the LighTrack II.  


Final Thoughts

The Fornax LighTrack II is a novel approach to astrophotography.  It seems like the engineers at Fornax wanted to avoid the common problems of gear drives, and create a much more reliable star tracker.  In theory, that's great!  In practice, I found a few problems with the design.

My first problem with the Fornax is the limited shooting time.  You can only capture about 100 minutes of data before the tracker must be reset.  Meanwhile, the Star Adventurer and SkyGuider Pro can shoot all night long, without any user intervention.  (Granted, I don't recommend leaving them for more than 20 or 30 minutes without a checkup.)  The larger issue here is that you will need to recompose your image.  During the reset process, your composition will shift and that needs to be corrected for.  I realize that you can hold the camera in place while the arm is being reset, but the composition may still shift noticeably, especially at higher focal lengths.  This small annoyance can turn into a lot of wasted time, especially if you're photographing a faint nebula.  

*For those doing Milky Way photography with a wide-angle lens, the limited shooting time is of no real concern.  It is very easy to adjust your ballhead and find another great wide-angle composition after the reset.  This would only be a problem when shooting with a telephoto lens.

The other problem I have with the LighTrack II is the price.  The tracker itself is fairly priced, especially considering the quality craftsmanship, but the accessories are a rip-off.  A declination bracket / counterweight kit should not cost ~$400...  Don't forget, if you live in North America you may have a hard time actually finding a retailer.  Fervent Astronomy, based out of Canada, is probably the closest you can get if you're located in the United States. 

All things considered, I find it hard to recommend the LighTrack II to the average astrophotographer.  You could buy a cheaper star tracker, like the SkyGuider Pro, (this bundle includes all of the required accessories) and still be way under the cost of the LighTrack II full package.  Or, you could invest in a more robust Go-To mount for the same price, which will ultimately provide more value in the long-run.  

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astro astrophotography fornax lightrack ii lighttrack ii review star tracker telescope tracker Tue, 11 Jan 2022 18:16:39 GMT
Focus On Stars - Wide Angle Bahtinov Mask | Review

If you've read my previous article on the Kase SharpStar Filters, then you know a Bahtinov Mask is a great way to focus at night!  However, there's one problem - these filters don't work well with wide angle lenses (35mm and wider). The wider the focal length, the less visible the diffraction spike becomes.  This is where Gábor Takács' Focus On Stars filter comes in.  

Gabor does a great job of explaining things on his website, so I'd recommend reading through it.  The short version is that a traditional bahtinov mask does not have enough small slits to work with a wide angle lens.  The Focus On Stars filter is comprised of dozens of tiny bahtinov masks combined into one.  Now, even with a 14mm lens, you'll be able to clearly see a diffraction spike!  This should make focusing with a wide angle lens much more precise.


Filter Options

Gabor currently offers two different sized filters - 100mm and 150mm.  The 100mm should work well for lenses that have a traditional filter thread on the front (like my Tamron 24-70mm).  In this case, I used my Lee Filters 100mm filter holder and adapter ring.  However, my Nikon 14-24mm lens does not have a filter thread, and requires a special 150mm holder.  I use the ProGrey G150Z filter holder, which does a nice job.  You can read my full review on that here.  After you've decided which filter size you want to go with (depending on your lens selection) be sure you have the proper sized filter holder!

On my first night with the filter, I was pleasantly surprised!  I could actually see sharp, defined diffraction spikes with my Nikon 14-24mm lens.  This would have been impossible with the Kase Bahtinov Masks I reviewed earlier this year.  

This image has been heavily cropped to show the visible diffraction spikes at 14mm.  Only the brighter stars will show a nice 3-line diffraction pattern, which is ideal for achieving perfect focus.


Using the Filter

To be honest, I was pretty skeptical that this filter would even work.  I figured that you could not get diffraction spikes at 14mm, due to the way bahtinov masks are designed.  So I must say, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally got to test out the Focus On Stars filter.  Using my Nikon D780's Live View display, I was able to find a bright star, zoom in on it, and begin adjusting my focusing ring until the diffraction spike looked nice and sharp.

In the 3 photos below you'll notice that one is front-focused, one is back-focused, and the other has perfect focus.  The diffraction spikes clearly show whether or not the stars are sharp.  Without this filter, perfect focus would be much more difficult to achieve.  All you can see are round, spherical stars and the challenge is to determine when those stars are as small as possible.  That's the old-fashioned way of focusing, and a lot of folks have trouble with it.

You will need to position a bright star properly to see the three lines of the diffraction spike.  Gabor suggests "moving the filter up and down and/or rotating the camera horizontally".  If you have Live View turned on, you should be able to see when the filter/camera is moved to the correct angle and the three lines become visible.  It would help to have the lens focused near the "Infinity" marking during this process.  Now you can make very small adjustments to the focus ring until you see the diffraction spike lined up perfectly.  (Click here to see an enlarged version of the photo below)

This comparison shows the difference between a sharp and blurry star.  The center photo has a sharp, defined diffraction pattern, indicating perfect focus.  Meanwhile, the outer two photos have a misaligned center line, which means the focus is slightly off.


As I am writing this, I remember a night out in the Colorado mountains.  I was shooting with a friend who had a similar setup to me - Nikon camera, and a Nikon 14-24mm lens.  As we got everything setup for a great nightscape image, I noticed a strange problem with his lens.  No matter how he turned the focus ring, the stars never got fully sharp.  They were always blurry.  If we could just turn the focus right a bit further to right, then the stars would have finally gotten sharp.  But that was impossible.  Unfortunately, he wasn't able to take a single sharp photo that night.  And frankly, I was surprised he hadn't noticed this problem sooner, or done anything about it.

The reason I bring up this story is because it may happen to you.  If you find it absolutely impossible to get sharp stars, even with the Focus On Stars filter, then it's possible your lens needs to be sent in for repair.  Don't hesitate to reach out to your lens manufacturer, along with some test photos, to see about getting it fixed.  


Focusing in the Dark

The main problem I have with the Focus on Stars filter is that it darkens the Live View preview significantly.  I use a Nikon D780 which has one of the best Live View displays on a DSLR.  Normally, I can see tons of stars in my Live View display.  However, when I attach the Focus On Stars filter, I can't see much of anything in Live View.  If you have a newer mirrorless camera, you should be okay.  The mirrorless cameras tend to have a spectacular Live View display.  In fact, I was able to see the Milky Way in real-time on a friend's Canon EOS R!  If you have an older DSLR, or you just have trouble seeing the stars, then the Focus on Stars filter may darken your Live View preview too much.

With that said, here's what I would do.  First, scan the sky overhead and find the brightest star.  Once you find it, move your camera and lens up to that point in the sky.  Take a quick test photo to verify it's in the frame.  Once you can see the bright star in the frame, center it up.  Next, attach the Focus on Stars filter.  Turn on Live View and zoom in.  You should see the diffraction spikes around that bright star.  If so, begin adjusting your focus ring until the 3 spikes line up properly.  

If your camera's Live View isn't bright enough to see the diffraction spikes, then you have a couple options.  First, try to find out if your camera has an "Exposure Boost" function.  Most modern cameras now have this feature, which will significantly brighten the Live View, allowing you to see better in low-light. For those on Sony, you should look into "Bright Monitoring".  For those on a Nikon D750 or D780, you'll want to go into the "i" button menu, while Live View is turned On.  Then, scroll through that "i" menu until you see "Exposure Preview" and turn that On.  Now, as you increase the Shutter Speed up to 30 seconds you should see any stars in your Live View preview get brighter!  Increasing the ISO and opening up the Aperture should also help.  Alternatively, you can try setting the camera to the Video Mode, increasing the ISO, and seeing what's visible during the Live View preview.

If the Live View preview is still too dark, and you can't see anything with the Focus On Stars filter attached, then try looking for a distant light on the horizon instead.  As long as the light is ~50+ feet away, it should work.  If you have a friend, you could even have them run out into the foreground  with a headlamp and then focus on that.  

No Filter

This Before and After comparison shows just how much the Focus On Stars filter will darken your image.  This can be a serious problem for those using older DSLRs, which don't have the best Live View.  Even on my new D780, I had trouble seeing diffraction spikes in Live View.


The Focus on Stars filter will work differently depending on your camera, location, time of year, and light pollution.  For example, if you have some distant lights on the horizon, you should have no problem finding and focusing on those.  On the other hand, if you're out in the desert with no lights around and no bright stars, you might not be able to see much of anything on your Live View.  This will make focusing with the filter more difficult.  However, now that summer is here, Jupiter will be shining brightly for most of the night.  The planets are some of the brightest objects in the night sky, and are my preferred focusing assistants.  

Of course, there's a simple workaround to the Live View brightness problem.  Take a photo, zoom in, and check the stars.  If the diffraction spike isn't sharp yet, make a small adjustment on your focus ring (pay attention to which direction you turn the ring).  Now take another photo.  Compare the two photos and see if the diffraction spike got smaller or larger.  If things look worse, you turned the focus ring the wrong direction.  Try turning the other way and compare.  Depending on your lens, this might not be that easy.  Many modern lenses have very "fast" focusing rings.  In other words, even the slightest adjustment can cause the stars to blur out substantially.  This will really complicate this trial and error method of focusing.  However, this is the way I focus my SpaceCat telescope with its bahtinov mask.  I take short test photos, make small adjustments to the focus ring, until the diffraction spike is perfect.  It takes more time than using Live View, but I can still make it work and get razor-sharp images!



Here you can see the difference between a focused and unfocused image, with the help of the Focus on Stars filter.  When the focus is perfect, the center line is right in the middle!


Final Thoughts

I've been doing astrophotography extensively for about 5 years now.  When it comes to wide-angle Milky Way photography, I've never really had a problem getting my stars sharp and focused.  This is for a variety of reasons - good eyesight, nice Live View display, lots of practice, and meticulous double-checking.  Therefore, I was fine with focusing the old-fashioned way.  Turn on Live View, zoom in, put the focus ring near the Infinity symbol (I've memorized the exact spot that gives me sharp stars), and make small adjustments on the focus ring until the stars are as small as possible.  That's it!  Pretty easy for me.

However, I've also spent the last 4 years working with students, and one of the most common problems I see is that they cannot get reliably focused images.  This is often just due to laziness / carelessness.  The student might think the stars are sharp, but they don't spend the time to really zoom in all the way and verify things are 100%.  Or, they start with their lens at 24mm and get everything focused.  At that point they take a test photo and realize they are zoomed in to 24mm, and not at 14mm like they want to be.  So they zoom out to 14mm and forget to refocus the lens!  Other times, the student simply doesn't have good enough eye-sight to verify the stars are as small as possible.  Even with a good Live View display, they won't be able to tell when the stars are perfectly sharp or not.  Therefore, the student would be greatly helped with this filter!  The unique diffraction spike will clearly show whether the lens is focused or not.  It will also force them to slow down, check, double-check, and triple-check that the diffraction spike is actually sharp.  After they've gotten the focus perfect, they can remove the filter and begin taking their test photos.

My final word is that the Focus On Stars filter works as advertised.  You can see diffractions spikes all the way to 14mm!  If you're tired of getting home and finding out that all of your photos are blurry, this might be a worthwhile investment.  My only real problem with the filter is that it significantly darkens the Live View display, which may make focusing difficult for those with older DSLRs.  Keep in mind, you will need a filter holder.  I use the Lee 100mm system for most of my lenses, and the ProGrey G-150Z system for my Nikon 14-24mm lens.  However, if you don't want to deal with a filter holder, you could potentially just hold the filter up to your lens during the focusing.  Then, use your free hand to turn the focus ring until the diffraction spike looks good.  

Click here for more information on the Focus on Stars filter. 


[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) bahtinov mask focus at night focus on stars focusing on stars Thu, 17 Jun 2021 21:09:12 GMT
Kase Filters AstroBlast Review

If you've been doing Milky Way photography for a while now, you might be getting a bit bored with the same old results.  I know I was getting tired of the same small, sharp stars in all of my Milky Way photos.  There are some great astrophotographers out there that create really dreamy looking nightscape images.  There are two different ways to create these types of photos - Photoshop or filters.  Photoshop is pretty fast and easy.  There are also a few plugins you can buy that handle all the hard work for you.  But some people like to get the results in-camera, with minimal edits.  This is where the Kase AstroBlast filter comes in.

Since I couldn't use the AstroBlast filter with my 14-24mm lens, I had to create this large vertical panorama with a 24-70mm lens.  It turned out great, but was a lot of work!  I prefer to keep things easy, usually with just two exposures (one tracked sky, one foreground)


Like most other filters, the AstroBlast is a 100mm square filter.  This brings up the first problem I have, I cannot use it with my Nikon 14-24mm lens.  That's the main one I use for nightscapes, so I was a bit disappointed.  Therefore, in order to test the filter I used my Tamron 24-70mm lens, which is a bit tight for nightscape compositions.

One recommendation I would have for Kase is to create circular versions of the AstroBlast filter.  I know many photographers don't have 100mm filter holders, and would prefer to stay as portable as possible.  If the AstroBlast filter was included along with Kase's brilliant magnetic filter system, I think a lot of people would prefer that.  Then again, the 100mm square filters can be easily used with all lenses that have a filter thread.   

Before we go any further, I should mention that I do my nightscapes a bit differently.  First, I find an interesting foreground to photograph.  After I get my composition lined up, I take a 4 or 5 minute long photo with Long Exposure Noise Reduction On.  This gives me a very clean, detailed foreground with minimal noise.  After my image is complete, I double check the position of the stars in the background.  Then I find a nearby flat, open area to setup my SkyGuider Pro.  This is a star tracker which allows me to shoot 5+ minute exposures with sharp stars!  After I take my tracked sky exposure, I've got everything I need!  I can easily blend the two exposures in Photoshop for a very high-quality final image.

There are some alternative methods if you hate the idea of taking 2 exposures.  You could take 20 images, one after the other, then use some software like Sequator or Starry Landscape Stacker to stack all 20 images.  This should give you a clean image as well, although it may not be perfect, especially if you have a lot of trees or bushes along the horizon.  Finally, you could keep things very simple and take a single 15 - 30 second exposure and be done.

The reason I bring up these different shooting methods is because they will change how the Astroblast filter works for you.  In my case, I only use the AstroBlast filter when I'm taking my 4 minute exposures with the star tracker.  Over the course of 4 minutes, the AstroBlast filter has a very strong effect on the stars. 

The AstroBlast filter is too intense when shooting 4 minute exposures on a star tracker


As you can see in the image above, I think the effect is way too strong when using a star tracker.  To make matters worse, any chromatic aberration from your lens will show up magnified.  In my case, the stars have a blue halo that becomes much more obvious with the filter.  There are a couple different ways to fix this problem.

First, you could take two photos - one with the filter, and one without.  This will give you a star glow image and a normal image.  Then, you can take both photos into Photoshop and create a layer mask for the AstroBlast image.  Invert the layer mask so it's completely black.  Finally, use a white paintbrush on your black layer mask to paint in only the stars you want to glow.  You can easily target the brightest or most important stars, while leaving the rest of the stars small and normal looking.  This technique might sound a bit confusing, but it's very easy.  You might want to check out my Astro Post Processing Course to learn more about photo editing.

For those that don't want to mess around in Photoshop, there's an alternate method you can try.  Rather than leave the filter on for all 4 minutes, you could leave it on for the first 60 seconds, then carefully remove the filter.  That would give you 3 minutes with no filter.  The comparison below shows the difference.


No Filter

If I keep the filter attached for 1/4 of the exposure the result is much more natural!

I think the new technique worked much better, and gives a more pleasing result.  Only the very brightest stars have a soft glow now.  Of course, this method isn't perfect.  I had to very gently slide the AstroBlast filter out from my Lee Filters 100mm Holder, without blocking any incoming light with my hand.  I managed to do an okay job, but I wouldn't necessarily want to do this for every photo.  I can imagine most people would not be able to pull this off very well either...  If Kase made a magnetic circular version of the AstroBlast filter, that might be more easy to remove without shaking the camera/lens.  But you'd still need to practice that technique quite a bit to not mess up the photo.

Looking back at the photo, I could have probably left the filter on for another minute.  I think that would have given a more noticeable glow, without over-doing it.  If you have the AstroBlast filter, or plan to buy it, give that a try!  (Leave the filter on for only half the exposure)


No Filter

Here we see the same problem again.  Taking 4 minute exposures with the filter on the entire time is just too much.  Leaving the filter on for only 1/2 the exposure should provide a much more pleasing result


Final Thoughts

The Kase AstroBlast filter is a unique way to change the mood of your astrophotography images.  Depending on your shooting style and lens selection, this filter may be a great new tool!  However, I can't necessarily recommend it for the average astrophotographer.  The first major problem I have is the price - $200.  There's a great Photoshop plugin that will allow you to have full control over star glow and star spikes, for just under $40.  The other issue is that you'll need to have a 100mm filter holder.  If you don't have one already, that will essentially double the price of the AstroBlast filter (a filter holder + adapter ring will cost between $100 - $200 in most cases).  As I mentioned earlier, I mainly use a Nikon 14-24mm lens for astrophotography, and it needs 150mm filters.  Therefore, I can't even use the AstroBlast with my favorite lens!  If you're the type that hates using Photoshop, and you've already got a 100mm filter holder, and your main astro lens can utilize 100mm filters, then the AstroBlast might be a good investment!  For the rest of us though, I think you'd be better off buying something like StarSpikesPro 4 and creating a star glow in Photoshop.

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astroblast astrophotography kase kase filters milky way night filter star glow star spikes Tue, 08 Jun 2021 15:46:32 GMT
Kase Filters Bahtinov Mask Review Whether you've been doing astrophotography for one week, or 10 years, you've likely had trouble focusing your telescope / lens.  This is especially a problem on some older DSLRs, where you can hardly see the stars on Live View.  Usually, the best you can do is slowly rotate the focus ring until the star looks as small as possible.  Not exactly precise...  Thankfully a Russian astrophotographer - Pavel Bahtinov -  came up with an ingenious solution!  

A Bahtinov Mask is a fairly simple design.  It's usually a piece of plastic with some slits cut out.  These slits produce unique diffraction spikes around bright stars.  These diffraction spikes allow you to get a perfect focus every night!  People have come up with some very creative, and inexpensive ways to do this - from 3d printing, to using household items.  However, the most reliable method is to use a purpose-built Bahtinov Mask.  To learn more about Bahtinov masks, check out this great article on NightSkyPix.

When I began using my SpaceCat telescope in 2019, I was happy to find a Bahtinov mask built into the lens hood.  I had never used one before, but it quickly became one of my favorite features of this telescope.  I no longer had to guess where the sharpest focus was, I could clearly see the diffraction spike and be sure!  Unfortunately, I did not have a way to use this mask with my regular telephoto lenses.  

The William Optics RedCat / SpaceCat telescope comes with a Bahtinov mask built into the lens hood.

In late 2020 I was contacted by Kase Filters, who wanted me to try out some of their astro-related filters.  I thought this would be a great opportunity to finally try a Bahtinov mask out on my traditional camera lenses.  I received two different variants - the more traditional circular filter, and a 100mm square filter.  The circular filter can be quickly attached to a normal camera lens, in my case a Tamron 24-70mm.  The 100mm square filter required a special 100mm filter holder, which I had laying around from my early days as a landscape photographer.  Let's talk about which option would work best for you.


Filter Thread Size

In order to choose the correct filter, you'll need to know your lens' filter thread size.  Every lens has a different filter thread, so you'll want to check each one.  You can look on the lens' body itself, or inside the lens cap.  Either way, you should find something like this Ø77 or Ø82.  This is your filter thread in mm.  I'll give a list of my lenses, along with their filter threads below.

  • Nikon 14-24 - No filter thread, too big (uses custom 150mm filter holder)
  • Nikon 24-70 - 77mm
  • Tamron 24-70 - 82mm
  • Sigma 35 - 67mm
  • Tokina 100 - 55mm
  • Tamron 150-600 - 95mm


Now that I know all of my filter thread sizes, I can make an informed decision.  Unfortunately, there's no easy choice.  The Kase Circular Bahtinov Mask is only available in 82mm and 77mm (as of March 2021).  That means I cannot use this filter with my Tamron 150-600mm lens, which requires a much larger filter (95mm).  However, I could adapt the 82mm filter to work with the rest of my lenses.  This will require step-up rings.

Step-up rings allow you to use a larger filter with smaller lenses.  You can find these rings for ~$10, so they are fairly cheap.  On the other hand, you could go with the 100mm square filter instead.  This would allow you to use that same 100mm filter with all of your lenses.  However, this method will ultimately cost more money, and require more gear.  We'll cover that further down in the article.

I'd recommend reading this article on step-up / step-down rings, it should clear up any confusion.

Most Bahtinov Masks will produce this diffraction spike.  You'll want to position the middle line directly in the center to achieve sharp focus.

Circular Filter

Most photographers are familiar with circular filters, especially the UV/Protection filters.  When people buy their camera/lenses from camera shops, they are often told they "need" a protection filter (so the camera store can actually make some money on the sale).  This brings up the first consideration.  If you have a UV/protection filter already on your lens, you'll want to take it off at night.  This glass is usually not the best quality, and can cause star distortion and weird flares at night.  Once any UV/protection filters are removed, you can now install the Kase Bahtinov mask.  

One feature I really like about the Kase filter is that it's magnetic.  I've never used a magnetic filter before, but it does make things much simpler.  After you thread the small magnetic ring into your lens filter thread, you can pop on the magnetic Bahtinov mask whenever you want.  For example, maybe you've spent a few minutes finding the perfect composition and dialing-in your camera settings.  You can quickly reach in your pocket, grab the bahtinov mask and clip it on the front of your lens.  If the diffraction spikes look good, you can pull the mask off and begin shooting.  No need to worry about threading the filter in every time!

During my tests of the circular filter, I discovered an unfortunate problem.  As the focal length gets wider, the bahtinov mask becomes less effective.  The diffraction spikes are harder to see, and don't offer much help once you get to about 24mm.  On the other hand, the more zoom you have, the clearer the diffraction spikes will be!  This makes a Bahtinov mask very useful at 200mm+!

Based on these findings, I would only recommend using a Bahtinov mask with lenses 50mm+.  If you are shooting with a wide angle lens, you'll just want to focus the old-fashioned way.  Use Live View, zoom into a bright star, and turn the focus ring until it's as small as possible.  If you don't have a good Live View, then you'll need to take test photos, adjusting the focus after each exposure. 

Kase has an 82mm Bahtinov Mask available, as well as a 77mm Bahtinov Mask.  

The Kase Bahtinov Mask quickly clips to the front of your lens, and allows for precise focusing with lenses 50mm+


100mm Square Filter

As I mentioned earlier, I used to do landscape and long exposure photography.  This was one of my favorite genres of photography, and I had a lot of fun using my 100mm Lee Filters to create beautiful images.  Since I already had a 100mm filter system, the 100mm Bahtinov Mask seemed like the perfect addition!  I could now utilize my filter holder at night!  

If you aren't familiar with 100mm filter systems yet, here's an article that explains the basics.

After you've chosen a filter holder, then you'll need some adapter rings.  These rings will allow you to attach the filter holder to your different lenses.  For example, with my lens selection (listed above), I could buy a 95mm adapter ring, 82mm adapter ring, 77mm adapter ring, 67mm adapter ring, and 55mm adapter ring.  However, this would be very expensive!  Each of those rings can cost up to $60!  This is where the step-up rings come in handy!

I can buy some cheap $5-$10 step-up rings that would attach to a single adapter ring.  For example, I could buy an 82mm adapter ring, then buy a 77-82mm step-up ring, a 67-82mm step-up ring, and a 55-82mm step-up ring.  I would still buy the 95mm adapter ring for my Tamron 150-600mm lens though.  Now I can quickly transfer my 100mm Bahtinov Mask and filter holder to all of my different lenses.

The Kase 100mm Bahtinov Mask does a great job with telephoto lenses!  The diffraction spikes are very crisp and clear, making focusing a breeze!  If you've got a decent Live View on your DSLR, you can even focus in real-time.  However, if you have an older DSLR, you'll still want to take some relatively short test photos to check the diffraction spike.  Then, adjust your focus ring slightly and see how the pattern changed.  Repeat until the center line is dead-center.  Be sure to check out my YouTube video (below) for more information on how to actually use a Bahtinov Mask.

If you have a large telephoto lens with a 95mm filter thread, then I would recommend going for the Kase 100mm Bahtinov Mask.  Just remember, you'll need a filter holder and a 95mm adapter ring.  You can find the Kase 100mm Bahtinov Mask here.

The 100mm Square Bahtinov Mask works perfectly with my old Lee Filter System


Final Word

After using both of the Kase Bahtinov Mask Filters, I'm happy to report they do a good job!  As I mentioned earlier, I never felt the need for a Bahtinov Mask until I began using my SpaceCat telescope and a ZWO ASI 1600MM camera.  With this specialized astro camera, I no longer had a Live View display for quick focusing.  That meant I had to take test photos, zoom in, check the star sharpness, adjust the focus ring slightly, take another test photo, zoom in, see if the focus was better/worse, and so on...  I also wanted to make sure I was getting truly sharp stars.  With the William Optics RedCat's built-in Bahtinov Mask, I can now be 100% sure I'm getting the best results.

For those using a DSLR and telephoto lens, a Bahtinov Mask can really save the day night!  This is especially true if you don't have the best eyesight, or have a hard time seeing your camera's LCD screen.  With the unique diffraction spikes around bright stars, you'll know for sure if you are perfectly focused.  Just remember to double check the focus every ~30 minutes or so during the winter.  This can be done quickly and easily with both the square and circular filter options.  I recommend aiming your lens up to a bright star before you find your object for the night.  After you've got your focus dialed in, then you can aim up towards whatever galaxy/nebula you want to photograph.

You can find the 77mm Circular Bahtinov Mask here, the 82mm Circular Bahtinov Mask here, and the 100mm Square Bahtinov Mask here.

Before we go, there's one other thing I wanted to mention.  I found it odd that the Kase 100mm "Bright Star" filter had many similarities to Lonely Speck's "Sharp Star" filter.  Of course, all Bahtinov Masks are going to look the same, and a 100mm filter is going to look like any other 100mm filter.  However, the SharpStar from Lonely Speck was originally released in 2015, and it seems Kase's Bright Star was released in 2017.  I do find it interesting that the naming scheme is so similar, along with the font placement on the edges of the filter.  I'll let you be the judge of that though.  Either way, I'd recommend reading Lonely Speck's article on Bahtinov Masks, he should explain anything I missed here. 

If you plan on using a telephoto lens for your astrophotography, then a Bahtinov Mask will really help you out!  However, if you are using a wide-angle lens for Milky Way photography, a Bahtinov Mask won't be much help.  Be sure to watch the video below for more information.


[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astrophotography Bahtinov Mask bright star dslr filter filters focus focusing at night how to focus at night kase filters milky way sharp star Thu, 11 Mar 2021 18:59:35 GMT
Dithering with a DSLR and Star Tracker

Dithering with a DSLR and Star Tracker 

Dithering is a special process that should allow you to fix some annoying problems in your astro images.  Many sensors produce fixed pattern noise, which can include hot pixels, banding, color mottle, and purple glow.  Canon cameras tend to have very bad banding issues, along with color noise.  Nikon cameras often have problems with a purple glow around the edges or bottom of the frame.  All cameras have color mottle, which are splotchy areas of usually purple and green.  You will mainly notice these problems if you don’t capture enough light during each exposure.

Theoretically, Dithering can help with all of these problems!  With dithering enabled, your camera will move slightly in a random direction between each exposure.  This small motion, when averaged over dozens or hundreds of images, should smooth out and remove most sensor problems.  We're going to find out today just how well it works though...

All cameras produce a “white noise”, which is present at all times.  This “white noise” can be "covered up" by capturing more light.  Let’s take a look at a few examples.  The photos below were taken with a Nikon D750.  The first image was taken at ISO 12,800, 15 seconds, f/2.8.  You’ll notice a ton of grain and a bright purple glow at the bottom.  This is all the “white noise” generated by my camera.  The foreground was very dark, and there was not enough light to cover up that "white noise" pattern.  To fix this, I took a 4 minute long photo at f/2.8, ISO 800.  I’ve now captured enough light to overpower that "white noise", and it is no longer visible!

(Both images were brightened extensively in post-processing to clearly show the sensor problems)



Taking a longer exposure is the secret to capturing amazing photos at night!  Most of the information online tends to focus on using short exposures and high ISO's to capture night images.  As you begin to take longer exposures, ideally 3+ minutes, your photos will improve dramatically.  There's only one problem - the stars are moving!

A star tracker will allow you to photograph the Milky Way or even distant nebulae and galaxies.  Basically, the star tracker will move your camera very slowly to follow the motion of the stars.  You can now capture much longer exposures with sharp stars!  However, since your camera is moving, the foreground will blur out.  Therefore, you need to take 2 exposures - one for the foreground, and one for the sky.  You can then blend the two together to create a final image.  I cover this in my Star Tracker Tutorials.

We’ve seen how easy it is to fix your camera sensor’s inherent problems by simply taking a longer exposure.  However, this is only really effective for wide-angle nightscapes.  We can easily shoot longer exposures without visible star trails due to the wide Field Of View.  If I use my SkyGuider Pro and do a rough polar alignment, I can usually get 4+ minute exposures at 14mm.  However, if I use a telephoto lens I won’t be able to shoot very long exposures at all.  

When I use my Tamron 150-600mm lens, I normally max out around 30 second exposures.  If I try to shoot any longer, I get star trails.  This lens is also usually between f/5.6 – f/6.3, which doesn’t capture a lot of light, especially compared to an f/2.8 lens.  Due to the small aperture and short exposures, I can never capture enough light to overpower the "white noise" being generated by my camera.  Even if I take 300 photos and stack them together, the pattern noise will still be baked into the final image.  With my Nikon D750, that means I'll have an ugly purple glow at the bottom of my final image.  You could take Dark and Bias frames, which will help to remove those annoying problems.  However, I personally find Dark Frames to be a waste of time, especially if you are using a good camera from Nikon, Sony, or Canon.  This is where dithering comes in.


What You’ll Need to Dither

If you have a SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer and want to dither, you’ll need a few different pieces of hardware and software.  First, you’ll want to get an auto-guider.  This is a little camera that will drastically increase the accuracy of your star tracker.  Basically, the auto-guider camera will lock onto a star that you specify.  It is constantly watching this star while you are taking photos. If it notices the star drifting outside of a crosshair, the auto-guider will send a command to your star tracker.  If you use a SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer it will only be able to tell it two things – “Speed up!” or “Slow down!”.  For example, let’s say the star begins to drift to the right.  The auto-guider will see that, and send a command to the star tracker to “slow down”.  The star tracker will very briefly slow down, and the star will return to the center of the box.  If the star begins to drift to the left, the auto-guider will say “speed up!”.  The star tracker will then speed up a bit so that the star gets back in the center of the box.  The actual process is much more complicated, but that’s basically what’s going on.

In order to actually use the auto-guider, you’ll also need a guide scope.  This is just a small telescope that focuses the light for the auto-guider.  I usually recommend getting this combo here.  There are other options, but this is a perfect combo for the SkyGuider Pro and Star Adventurer.

Once you have your auto-guider and guide scope, you need to find a way to mount everything.  I originally used a hotshoe mount, but this was fairly flimsy.  I eventually learned that I could use a simple arca-swiss clamp to attach the guide scope directly to my camera’s L-Bracket.  This method is much more secure.  However, it will put more weight on one side of your camera, which can cause balance problems at night.  If I use my Space Cat telescope, then I can mount the auto-guider directly to the “saddle bar” (optional accessory).  This is the best method, and provides the most secure connection without creating any balance problems.  However, if you are using a normal telephoto lens, you won’t be able to do this.

Now that you’ve got your auto-guider and guide scope mounted, you need to download some software.  PHD2 will do all of the auto-guiding for you in just 4 easy steps!  Connect your equipment, begin looping exposures, pick a star, begin guiding.  That’s all there is to it!  The only downside with this method is that you’ll need a laptop out next to your star tracker.

My preferred way to use an auto-guider is with the ZWO ASIAir.  This is a nifty little device that does everything PHD2 and SharpCap do, but you can control it from your smartphone! 

Okay, so you’ve got your auto-guider, guide scope, PHD2 or ASIAir, DSLR, and star tracker.  At this point, you’re almost ready to dither!  However, there’s one final consideration – image acquisition software.  I normally just use a wired remote to control my DSLR.  This simplifies my shooting process, but it does not work with dithering.  For dithering to work properly, there needs to be communication between your DSLR, auto-guider, and star tracker.  Therefore, you will need some type of image acquisition software to dither.  

You can either use the ASIAir app on your smartphone, or Backyard Nikon/EOS on your laptop.  Both options will allow you to control your DSLR in real-time, you can even adjust the camera settings, shooting interval, and see a live preview.  Most importantly, this image acquisition software should have features that will allow you to dither!  The exact process will change depending on the software, but it’s generally the same workflow.


Dithering with PHD2 and Backyard EOS / Nikon

Backyard EOS and Backyard Nikon are two of the most popular image acquisition programs available.  These will allow you to control your camera, whether Nikon or Canon, from your laptop.  You will need a USB connection from the DSLR to your laptop for this to work.  Once the DSLR is connected to the laptop, and the auto-guider is connected to the laptop and star tracker, you can begin.

First, start up PHD2.  Now click on the little “Brain” icon towards the bottom of the screen.  In the “Global” tab you should see the Dither settings.  Be sure to choose “Random” for the mode, and check the box for “RA only”.  The SkyGuider Pro and Star Adventurer only have an automated Right Ascension (RA), so that needs to be checked.  You can also adjust the scale.  Since DSLRs usually have large sensors with a Bayer Array, we need a larger scale for the dithering to be effective.  Once you’ve configured these settings, click Ok at the bottom. 

Now we need to turn on the Server option in PHD2.  Go up to the Tools tab on the main screen.  You should see “Enable Server” towards the bottom.  Click on it, and it should now be checked.  This will allow Backyard EOS / Nikon to communicate with PHD2.

You can now adjust the PHD2 Dithering settings in Backyard EOS / Nikon.  Go to the Settings and find PHD Guider.  You may want to do your own research on how to setup Backyard EOS / Nikon.  I haven't personally used either application yet.

Once everything has been set correctly, dithering should occur!  Let’s break down what will actually happen though.  PHD2 will guide on a particular star, sending commands to the tracker to keep that star centered.  Your DSLR will be taking a photo.  Once the exposure ends, Backyard EOS / Nikon will relay that to PHD2.  PHD2 will now send a command to the star tracker to move slightly in a random direction.  Since we are using a SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer, it can only move the RA axis.  Once the tracker has moved, PHD2 will lock back on to the star and begin guiding again.  Your DSLR will now begin taking its next exposure.  This process will repeat for the rest of the night.  The end effect is that the stars will shift position between each photo very slightly.  The stacking software will align all the stars back to the same spot.  In that process, it should smooth out any color mottle and banding.  It will also remove hot pixels.


Dithering with the ASIAir

First, make sure all your cables are connected properly.  You need to connect the ST4 cable from the auto-guider to the "Guide" port on your Star Adventurer or SkyGuider Pro.  The USB cable needs to be connected from the auto-guider to the ASIAir Pro.  If you have a dedicated astro camera, make sure it's also connected to the ASIAir Pro.  For those using a DSLR, you should connect the DSLR to the ASIAir Pro using a USB cable.  Make sure your camera is actually supported too!  Unfortunately, Sony cameras aren't not currently supported on the ASIAir Pro, so this method will only work for some Nikon and Canon shooters.

The camera should be set to full Manual Mode, with Bulb Mode enabled.  For most people, scroll your shutter speed dial until you see Bulb.  For some Canon cameras, you may see a B on your top dial.  This may stand for Bulb Mode.  You should also set your Aperture to the widest possible f/stop.  In my case, that's between f/5 and f/6.3 with my Tamron 150-600mm lens.  You can always change the ISO and Shutter Speed via the ASIAir Pro app on your smartphone later.

At this point, I'm assuming you've connected the ST4 and USB cables properly from the auto-guider, the DSLR is connected to the ASIAir Pro via USB, you've done a polar alignment, you've balanced your camera with the counterweight, the lens is focused, and the object you are photographing is centered in the frame.  You should be ready to shoot!

Once you are ready to photograph your object, now we can talk about dithering with the ASIAir Pro.  First, go to the Guide Settings up top.  At the bottom of the Guide Settings you'll see "Dither Settings".  Once inside the "Dither Settings" menu, you can adjust a lot of variables including - Pixels, Stability, Settle Time, Interval, and RA Only.  Let's break down each one.

Pixels - This refers to how many pixels the auto-guider will move its guide star.  If you are shooting with a wider focal length (70-200mm), you'd want a higher number here, maybe 5 or 10.  Since the field of view is wider, you need more movement for the dithering to work well.  If you are shooting 400mm+, you can probably use a Pixel value of 1, 2, or 3.  I'd recommend doing your own research on this topic for more information.  Personally, I always use a higher value (5 or 10).

Stability - This value is marked in seconds - 0.6", 1", 2", 3", 4".  These are arc-seconds, and they are referring to the error on your guiding graph.  In other words, how accurate do you want the guiding to be before you begin taking your next exposure?  If you set this to 0.6", 1", or 2", you may have to wait a long time before the ASIAir Pro will allow your DSLR to take the next photo.  I normally leave this on 4".

Settle Time - These values range from 1s, 3s, 5s, 10s, and 15s.  After your auto-guider has settled to the error you set above (in my case 4" arc seconds), then it will wait a set amount of time before taking your next image on your DSLR or dedicated astro camera.  I personally use a value of either 3s or 5s here, so that I'm not wasting too much time between each photo.

Interval - Very simply, leave this to 1.  That ensures the auto-guider will move the star tracker after every single exposure.

RA Only - If you are using a SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer be sure to turn this On.  If you are using a different mount that has an automated declination axis, turn this off.

This image shows the Dithering process. The first photo has completed, so the Dithering moves the star tracker slightly.  It then waits until things have settled down.  Once the arc-second error rating falls to an acceptable range, it will allow the camera to take another photo.


Once you've chosen all of your Dither Settings, you can begin Guiding.  Remember, you need to click the "Begin Looping" arrows on the right.  This will cause the auto-guider to begin taking photos.  Once you see some stars, you may need to refocus your guide scope.  Provided the stars are sharp, you can tap on one.  A green box will be drawn around the star you chose.  Now click the "Begin Guiding" crosshair button on the right.  It will begin a calibration.  This usually takes about 2 minutes.  After the calibration completes and the lines appear on the graph, we can start the final process of adjusting our Auto-Run settings.  I cover this process in my YouTube Course.

If you click the arrow in the top left of the screen, that will bring you back to the camera shooting interface.  From here, click Preview on the right.  Now choose Auto-Run.  When you enter the Auto-Run interface, click the button that has three dots and three lines on the right.  You are now in the Shooting Schedule menu.  I recommend deleting any schedules that are there, and starting fresh.  Click the + button to add a new schedule.  You'll be able to choose the Shutter Speed and Number of Photos.  I recommend capturing at least an hour of total exposure time.  Since you are using an auto-guider, you can probably get sharp stars up to 5 minutes now.  

Now that you've got your Auto-Run settings dialed in (shutter speed, object name, filters, number of photos, etc...) you can finally start taking your images!  Click the circular button on the right to begin your shooting sequence.

If everything is working correctly, your first photo should complete as normal.  Then the Guide Graph window will show the Dithering (as seen in the photo above).  Once the star tracker has settled, it will automatically have the camera begin taking another photo.  This process will repeat until the software has taken as many photos as you specified in the Auto-Run.

This brings me to my big problem with dithering (using a Star Adventurer or SkyGuider Pro).  You may be waiting up to 30 seconds between each photo!  The auto-guider needs to wait for the graph to settle before it will allow your camera to take another photo.  This can waste a lot of time!  During my Andromeda test, I wasted half of my night waiting for the dithering to settle.  That's a huge loss of light!

You'll need to do your own tests to determine if Dithering is right for you.  In my experience, it's a waste of time.  I'd rather spend my time capturing as much light as possible, rather than spending half the night just waiting on the dithering to complete.  I also noticed that my DSLR's battery seemed to drain a lot faster when connected to the ASIAir Pro.  For those using a Go-To mount, you might have much more success with dithering!




Final Thoughts

Dithering is a popular technique that should allow you to capture amazing photos, without needing Dark Frames!  The Dithering process moves the star tracker, and ultimately your camera, very slightly between each exposure.  This random movement, when spread over dozens or hundreds of photos, will help with the stacking process.  Since the stars shift between each frame, things like hot pixels, color mottle, and some fixed pattern noise should be removed during the stacking process.

However, as we saw today, dithering does have serious drawbacks.  With a SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer, and average guiding, you might spend up to half the night waiting for your guiding to settle.  That means rather than capturing 2 hours of data, you'll only capture 1 hour.  There's another factor to consider.  Since the SkyGuider Pro / Star Adventurer can only Dither in RA, we aren't getting "true" dithering.  Ideally, the stars would move in a random spiral direction between each photo.  In our case though, the stars will only move up/down or left/right, not both.  In other words, we aren't getting the full benefit since we are limited to RA Only.

If you want to give dithering a try, you'll need a star tracker, auto-guider and guide scope, PHD2, and some type of image acquisition software.  Alternatively, you can also use an ASIAir Pro to control everything from your smartphone.  If you've got the gear, it's worth a try!  Just remember the drawbacks I mentioned today.

Picture saved with settings embedded.

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) asiair ASIAir Pro astrophotography auto guider dither dithering guiding phd2 SkyGuider Pro Star Adventurer star tracker Tue, 22 Sep 2020 01:26:21 GMT
Nikon D780 Review - Astrophotography Nikon D780 Review - Astrophotography

The Nikon D780 is the long-awaited replacement for the popular D750.  I've been using a Nikon D750 for the past 5 years for all of my astrophotography, landscapes, wildlife, portraits, and more.  The camera has done a phenomenal job, but it was starting to show its age.  There were also a few small problems with the D750, the main one being this annoying purple glow.  This purple glow was only visible if I didn't capture enough light to "cover it up", which is a pretty common occurrence when doing astrophotography.  After waiting for years to upgrade to a new camera body, I was very excited when Nikon finally released the D780!  In this review I'm going to focus on how the D780 performs specifically for nightscapes and astrophotography.


Camera Body Design and Ergonomics 

The D780 has a very similar design to the D750, both in terms of button layout and ergonomics.  If you're comfortable using your D750 at night, it will be very easy to switch to the D780.  The main difference is that the "i" button has moved from the lower left to the lower right.  The "info" button has also moved from the upper right to the lower left.  Finally, the Live View button has moved from the lower right to the upper right.  After using the camera for a day, it's pretty easy to get used to these small changes.  Click here to see the Nikon D750's button layout, and here to see the Nikon D780's button layout.

The most important change to the button layout is the ISO button.  Thankfully, Nikon put the ISO button up top, next to the "Record Movie" button.  This makes it very easy to find at night, and quickly switch the ISO.  On the D750, the ISO button was placed on the back, right between some very important buttons like "Quality" and "i".  It was very easy to accidentally switch from RAW to JPEG if you weren't careful, especially in the dark.

The Nikon D780 does have a touch-screen LCD now, although I rarely use it.  For those who like touch screens, you can use this to focus the image by tapping on the screen, scroll through photos and menus, change settings, zoom in, and more.  If you'd rather not have the touch-screen functionality, you can always turn it off in the menu.  

As you've probably heard, the Nikon D780 does not have a built-in flash, unlike virtually every other DSLR.  Nikon says this was done to help weather-seal the camera, but my D750 was in lots of very wet and dirty conditions and never once had a problem.  It is unfortunate that there is no longer any built-in flash, but if we're being honest it wasn't all that useful anyway (especially for nightscapes and astro).  

The camera grip is very similar between the two camera bodies, however the Nikon D750 is still more comfortable to hold.  Even having both cameras side-by-side, its hard for me to explain what the actual difference is.  All I can say is that the D750 feels a little bit better in the hand, the D780 almost seems maybe a centimeter or two less deep?  This isn't a big deal, but I did want to mention it.

One shortcoming of the D780 is the lack of illuminated buttons.  The D850 allows you to flick the "on/off" switch and illuminate the rear buttons temporarily.  This can be very handy at night, especially if you're still new to the camera.  Once Nikon developed this tech, you'd think they would include it on all new cameras.  The D780 has many features specifically designed for night shooting, so it seems odd Nikon did not include illuminated buttons.  This isn't that big of a problem, and you should know how to use your camera in the dark.  Still, it would have been a nice addition...

Finally, one of my favorite changes is the shutter sound.  The Nikon D750 has a very loud mechanical shutter, which I found to be a bit off-putting the first time I heard it.  I eventually got used to it though.  (I realize I'm nitpicking here).  The new D780 has a noticeably quieter and "lower pitched" shutter.  You can even turn on a Silent Shutter option when using Live View.  If Silent Shutter is enabled, the camera will take photos in Live View without making any noise.  The Silent Shooting mode should help to reduce some camera shake, since the mechanical shutter is not coming down after each photo.  (Although you'd be hard-pressed to ever see any shutter-induced camera shake in your astro images)  

All things considered, the Nikon D780 has an improved button layout that makes more sense than the D750.  However, I have noticed that the "d-pad" is somewhat "gummy" on the D780.  My D750 d-pad still acts like it's brand new, even after all these years.  The D780 d-pad tends to be very mushy though, and sometimes it's hard to press.  I'm not sure if mine is defective, or if this is a common problem with all D780s.


New and Improved Menu System

My favorite upgrade with the D780 is the new "i" menu, which gives you complete control over your quick-access menu!  You can now fully customize how you want the "i" menu to appear in both optical viewfinder mode and Live View mode.  For example, I've set my "i" menu to have a Delay option (where I can quickly set a 2 second delay), Interval Timer, LENR, Auto-Focus Mode, White Balance, Exposure Compensation, AF Area Mode, and more.  If I want to switch it up, I can always go into the menu and change things around.  I'm glad that Nikon is giving us this new freedom to setup the camera how we want!

The menu layout itself is almost identical to the D750.  We've still got the Playback, Photo, Video, Custom Settings, and Setup menus.  I'd recommend watching this very thorough video from Steve Perry if you want to see all the menu options on the D780.

One of the most exciting new features of the D780 is the Extended Shutter Speed Options.  Once you turn this on in the "Custom Settings" menu, you can now shoot longer than 30 seconds!  With virtually every other DSLR out there, you are limited to a max of 30 seconds on your shutter speed.  If you want to shoot longer, you need to put the camera to Bulb mode and attach a remote.  However, the D780 (with Extended Shutter Speeds turned ON) will allow you to keep scrolling past 30 seconds.  You can now do 60, 90, 120, 180, 240, 300, 480, 600, 720, and 900 seconds!  This is a game-changer for me!  I normally shoot 4 minute exposures at night, so I can capture a lot of light and have a clean photo.  The D780 makes this so much easier now, I can very quickly take my 10 second test shots, then scroll over to a 4 minute long exposure.  Thank you Nikon!!

If you'd like to do deep space astrophotography or timelapse photography, the D780 also has a robust Interval Shooting menu.  I've got the Interval Timer Shooting button mapped to my "i" menu, so I can quickly access the intervalometer.  As expected, you can set the interval to any time frame you want.  In my case, if I'm shooting 4 minute exposures, I can set the Interval to 04' 01".  This will make the camera take one photo after another, with no gaps in-between.  (Perfect for star trails!)  You can also turn on Silent Photography, Exposure Smoothing, Focus Before Each Shot, and more from the menu.   This is another great feature for astrophotography and completely eliminates the need for an external remote!


Live View Performance

Live View is critical for astrophotography, if your camera has a poor Live View you will be in a for a lot of headaches each night!  For example, many of my students use Canon DSLRs.  In my experience, many of these cameras have terrible Live View displays, making it almost impossible to find and focus on a star at night.  This complicates the process considerably, and turns a relatively straightforward technique into a guessing game.  Thankfully, most of the Nikon DLSRs have decent Live View systems, and you should be able to see the stars on your LCD screen.  This is one area where mirrorless cameras really shine!  On most new mirrorless cameras you can actually see the Milky Way galaxy in real-time on the LCD screen!  It really is remarkable the first time you experience it!  Unfortunately, DSLRs are still "old-fashioned" so we don't get this extra benefit.

With all that said, the Nikon D780's Live View performance is noticeably better than the D750.  The stars appear brighter and you should be able to pick out fainter stars and more detail.  Be sure to go into the camera menu and turn "Exposure Preview On".  You can also map this "Exposure Preview" to your Live View's "i" menu.  When you have "Exposure Preview ON", the Live View will update the image in real-time as you adjust the aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed (on Manual Mode).  This can actually help to make the stars even brighter at night.  Be sure to put the Shutter Speed to 30 seconds, and the ISO to at least 12,800 when you are trying to focus.  This should help quite a bit. 

Having used both DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras for astrophotography, the D780 seems to be at a unique spot between the two.  It's noticeably more sensitive in low-light than a typical DSLR, but nowhere near as sensitive as a mirrorless camera.  If you've been having trouble seeing the stars with your current DSLR's Live View, I guarantee the D780 will be a big step up! 

Long Exposure Noise Reduction

Long Exposure Noise Reduction is a special camera setting you can enable at any time.  When it's turned on, the camera will take two photos (if the shutter speed is longer than 1 second).  The first photo will be a normal image, the second photo will be a dark frame.  This dark frame does not capture any light (the camera's mirror and shutter will close), it simply records the hot pixels on your sensor.  Once both the light frame and dark frame have been taken, the camera will analyze the two photos and attempt to remove any hot pixels.  From an end-user standpoint, your shutter speed will always be doubled when LENR is turned On.  Therefore, a 30 second photo will take 60 seconds to complete.

Unless you are shooting 60+ second exposures, I don't recommend turning LENR On.  In fact, the only time I use LENR is when I'm taking 4+ minute exposures for my foregrounds.  When the camera is collecting light for so long, the sensor tends to get very warm and produce a lot of hot pixels.  You can try to remove them in Post Processing, but it's usually better done in-camera.  (Especially for nightscape photography)  For those attempting deep space astrophotography with a telephoto lens or telescope, don't use LENR!  You'll just be wasting time!

One of the big problems I had with the Nikon D750 was the bugged LENR mode.  Click here to read my full article detailing this problem.  In short, LENR was causing the stars to turn weird colors.  Thankfully this problem has been fixed on the Nikon D780, however there are still some problems...

It appears LENR is still causing some artifacts in the sky.  This isn't too surprising when you consider what's going on behind the scenes.  The camera is likely overwhelmed by all the stars, thinking they may be hot pixels.  Therefore, I still recommend only using LENR when photographing foregrounds.  If you plan to photograph the sky, turn off LENR.


Low Light Performance

My biggest problem with the Nikon D750 was the annoying purple glow seen in every single photo I took at night (at least until I bought a star tracker).  This drove my crazy, and I had to edit my photos with a unique color balance to hide the problem.  Eventually I realized this purple glow was essentially "white noise" being generated by the camera.  If I took longer exposures, and captured more light, I was able to "cover-up" the white noise and have a clean, detailed photo!  I'm happy to report that the Nikon D780 does not suffer from this purple glow!  Even my test photos taken at ISO 25,600 and just 8 seconds long look really good!



Final Thoughts

I've used a lot of different cameras over the past 2 years as an astrophotography instructor.  Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Fuji - DSLRs, Mirrorless, and even Dedicated Astro Cameras.  Every camera has its own unique benefits, quirks, and annoyances.  The Nikon D780 has great low-light performance, a well-designed camera body, customizable menus, a BSI sensor, extended shutter speed options, and a fantastic Live View display.  This combination of features makes the D780 an excellent camera for both wide-angle and deep space astrophotography!  If you are looking to buy a new DSLR, I would say that the D780 is one of the best options on the market!

There are only a handful of problems I can find with the D780.  The first problem I have is the price.  At $2,300, it's not a cheap camera.  To be clear, this is the same price as the Nikon D750 at launch.  I just feel that the new features in the D780 don't quite justify the premium.  If you are happy with your Nikon D750, there's not too much incentive to upgrade to the D780.  The second problem I have is the lack of illuminated buttons.  Nikon included some great features for astrophotography, so that makes it even more puzzling why they left out the illuminated buttons.  Again, not a big deal, but it would have been nice.  As we discussed in the LENR section, there are still some bugs when using LENR and photographing the night sky.  It's possible a firmware update can fix this, but you're better off just using different shooting techniques to solve the problem.

In terms of image quality, the Nikon D780 does a wonderful job at night!  In this YouTube video I discuss the problems I've found with various cameras over the past few months.  The short version is that almost every DSLR out there has some type of annoying problem.  For Canon shooters, you may notice an ugly banding across your photos.  Nikon shooters usually have to contend with this annoying purple glow.  All of these problems are caused by the camera sensor and the fact that the photographer isn't capturing enough light in their exposure.  Simply taking a longer exposure and capturing more light will fix these problems in most cases.  That's why I highly recommend using a star tracker for astrophotography!  

Out of all the cameras I've used over the past few years, the Nikon D780 is at the top of my list for astrophotography.  The mirrorless cameras, like the Nikon Z6 / Z7, Canon EOS R / Ra, Sony, etc... are all great options too.  In fact, they may perform even better than the D780, at least when it comes to the Live View display.  However, I still prefer DSLRs for a few reasons - optical viewfinder, comfortable camera grip, no lens adapter required. 

For more information on the D780, be sure to watch my YouTube video review below.

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astrophotography best dslr for astrophotography d750 d780 milky way photography nightscapes nikon nikon d780 review review which dslr should i get Mon, 06 Apr 2020 01:39:40 GMT
A Guide to Astrophotography Filters Astrophotography Filters

In this article we’ll be looking at the different astrophotography filters and how to properly use them.  These filters are mainly designed for monochrome camera users.  If you have a color astro camera or DSLR, then you won’t get the full benefits of using narrowband or LRGB filters.  You could go for some unique light pollution or sky enhancement filters though.


LRGB and Narrowband

First, let’s look at the two main types of filters – LRGB and Narrowband.  LRGB stands for Luminance, Red, Green, and Blue.  These filters will allow you to capture a full color image with a monochrome camera.  You will need to take a set of photos for each filter.  For example, 100 photos with Red, 100 photos with Green, 100 with Blue, and 100 with Luminance.  Once you have these different sets, you can stack each one.  Once all sets have been stacked to reduce noise, you can assign those stacked photos to specific color channels in Photoshop (or another image processer.)  As soon as the colors have been mapped correctly, your monochrome photo will turn into a full color image!  I’ll cover this process in a future tutorial.

Each one of these filters will only allow a specific range of wavelengths through to your camera.  The Blue filter will let 400nm – 500nm through.  The Green filter will let 500nm – 600nm through.  The Red Filter will let 600nm – 700nm through.  Finally, the Luminance filter will let the full range from 400nm – 700nm through.  If you are using a monochrome camera, all of these photos will be black and white.  You will not have a color image until you map the colors in post-processing.

Narrowband filters are much more precise, they only let a few nm of light through.  This has some great side-effects!  Narrowband Filters will allow you to photograph nebulae even during a full moon, or from a light polluted city!  That’s because these filters block out all the wavelengths of light that normally interfere with our astro photos.  Unlike RGB filters, which transmit about ~100nm of light, narrowband filters transmit between 3 - 12nm.  This very narrow range blocks most light, including light pollution and moonlight, while allowing only specific wavelengths through.

You can normally buy a set of Narrowband filters which includes Hydrogen Alpha (H-Alpha), Sulfur (SII), and Oxygen (OIII).  The Hydrogen Alpha filter will only allow light at 656nm through, which is the color red.  The Sulfur filter will only allow light at 672nm, which is also red.  Oxygen is 500nm, which is roughly blue/green.  These narrowband filters are usually marketed as 3nm, 5nm, or 7nm.  Usually, the smaller the better.  As the range gets smaller, only the specific wavelengths of light from Ha, SII, and OIII will be visible.  As the range gets larger, it’s possible that light pollution or moonlight will start to be picked up.

Keep in mind, these narrowband filters are only letting 3nm – 7nm of light through.  That’s not a lot of light!  Meanwhile, the RGB filters each let 100nm of light through.  Therefore, you will need to take longer exposures with the narrowband filters to make up for the smaller range of light.  Many people online take 10 – 20 minute exposures with narrowband filters!  Unfortunately, my SkyGuider Pro is not accurate enough to do that.  You may need to upgrade your mount to get the most out of your filters and camera.  If you don’t capture enough light, your images will have a lot more grain and other problems.

You might be thinking, how am I going to create a color photo with narrowband filters?  Well, that brings up an interesting point.  Narrowband Filters do not create “true color” images.  Therefore, you can assign these various filters to different color channels in post-processing.  The “Hubble Palette” maps Hydrogen Alpha to Green, Sulfur to Red, and Oxygen to Blue.  It might sound odd, putting H-Alpha to Green, when in reality it’s a red wavelength.  However, according to NASA this was done to better show structure and detail in the nebulae.  You are free to map the various narrowband images to any color channel you like! 

Picture saved with settings embedded. This photo of the Horsehead Nebula was captured using LRGB filters, as well as an H-Alpha filter.  You can watch my full post-processing tutorial here.


There are quite a few different filter brands to choose from – Optolong, ZWO, Baader, Astronomik, and Astrodon to name a few.  Like anything else, you get what you pay for.  Optolong and ZWO are considered “budget friendly” filters, Astronomik and Baader are usually considered “pretty good, a nice balance between cost and performance”, and Astrodon are regarded as the best filters available.

If you’ve got the money, your best bet is to invest in the Astrodon filters.  These should offer the best image quality.  If you are just getting started though, or don’t feel like spending over $1,000 on a single filter, then any of the other brands should do a good job.



Regardless which brand you go with, you need to pick the correct size filters.  The most common sizes are 1.25”, 2”, 31mm, and 36mm.  The 1.25” and 2” filters usually have threads, so they can be easily installed to your filter wheel, camera, or telescope.  The 31mm and 36mm filters don’t have threads, so they must be installed a little differently.  Frankly, I found the installation process to be a major pain.  The threaded filters would be much simpler...

The 1.25” filters seem to be the most common, they are also usually the cheapest filter size available.  Next up we have the 31mm unmounted filters, these will cost a bit more than the 1.25” filters, even though they are basically the same size.  The 36mm unmounted filters will see another price increase.  Finally, the 2” filters will cost the most, since they are the largest in size.

The main reason you would get larger filters is to reduce vignette.  The smaller the filter, the greater the chance that it will cause a vignette in your photos.  This vignette can be removed with flat frames, but you will still be losing some light.  I ended up choosing the 36mm unmounted filters.  My thought process was – “I don’t want to worry about vignette, but I also don’t want to spend all that extra money getting the 2” filters.  I also need to make sure I can fit these filters inside a filter wheel”. 

Picture saved with settings embedded. This photo was taken with my ASI 1600MM Pro, WO SpaceCat telescope, SkyWatcher EQ6R-Pro mount, and ZWO filters (H-Alpha, Red, Blue, and Oxygen)


Mounted or Unmounted?

I want to stress the importance of choosing between "mounted" and "unmounted" filters.  I purchased "unmounted" filters, which don't have any threads.  This turned out to be a huge hassle!  Installing these filters into my filter wheel was incredibly frustrating and took me over an hour.  In the process, I accidentally smudged the filters a bit, and even hit them with my screw.  (I've got big, clumsy fingers...)  One of the hardest parts of the installation was determining which side had the anti-reflective coating.  One side of the filters has an anti-reflective coating, which should be facing the camera sensor.  Unfortunately, I could not tell the difference.  Therefore, I probably installed a few filters upside down.   

The mounted filters, with threads, are much easier to install!  You simply screw them into the filter wheel.  This makes it easy to swap filters, and you don't have to worry about which side has the anti-reflective coating.  The threads are only on one side of the filter, so you'll always install them correctly.  If I could go back in time, I would buy the 2" threaded filters, rather than the 36mm unmounted filters.

If you aren't good with small tools (like me), and you want a simple setup, then I'd highly recommend the "mounted" filters with threads.  This will even allow you to use a smaller filter wheel, like the ZWO EFW Mini.  There are only 5 filter slots in there.  You could pretty easily swap between the LRGB and Narrowband filters if you had threaded filters.  

Picture saved with settings embedded.

This photo of the Heart Nebula was captured with just H-Alpha and Oxygen data

Filter Wheel

Before you purchase any filters, you should also look into a filter wheel.  This is a really nice device that will allow you to quickly swap between your filters, without having to take apart your entire setup!  If you don’t have a filter wheel, you will be installing your filters directly to the telescope or camera.  Every time you want to swap filters, you'd need to take your gear apart and install a new one.  This creates a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong!

There are a lot of different filter wheels to choose from, so let’s break down the key differences.  ZWO makes quite a few different filter wheels, which you can see here.  The main difference between the various filter wheels is what size filters they hold (1.25", 2", 31mm, 36mm etc...), and how many filters they can hold at one time (5,6,7,8). 

Let’s start with the EFW Mini, as this was the filter wheel I originally considered.  The main reason I wanted this filter wheel was the small size, which would pair perfectly with my SpaceCat setup.  I soon realized this filter wheel would not work for me though.  It only holds 5 filters (either 1.25” or 31mm).  I need my filter wheel to hold at least 7 filters – LRGB + 3 Narrowband.  I also wanted to use larger filters, so there was less chance of a vignette.

This led me to the ZWO EFW 7 / 8 filter wheel.  You can choose either the 7 position filter wheel, which takes 36mm filters, or the 8 position filter wheel which takes 1.25” and 31mm filters.  This filter holder has plenty of space for LRGB and 3 Narrowband filters.  Since I only need 7 filters, and I want larger filters, I choose the 7 position filter wheel.  However, if you are using 1.25” filters, then the 8 position filter wheel is a great choice.  You’ll have one extra spot you can use for any other filter you want.

ZWO also makes a filter wheel which can hold the larger 2” filters.  If you want those big filters, this is your best bet.  If I could go back in time, I would probably buy this filter holder along with the 2" filters for LRGB and Narrowband.  It will be more expensive, but should provide great results.

My favorite part of the ZWO filter wheels is that they can all be controlled by the ASIAir app on your phone!  I’ve mentioned the ASIAir before, but this is a great product that should streamline your workflow.  Once you have an ASIAir, you can control your main camera, auto-guider, and filter wheel all from your smartphone!  Instead of going outside and manually changing the filters around, you just click a button in the smartphone app and it will change to whichever filter you want.  I love how this tech all works together!

You don’t need a ZWO brand filter wheel to have this functionality.  There are other manufacturers that allow you to electronically change filters around using your laptop and some software.  However, I like the ecosystem that ZWO has established for all of their products, so that’s what I use.

Picture saved with settings embedded. This photo of the Rosette Nebula was captured with narrowband filters - Hydrogen Alpha and Oxygen.  You can watch my full post-processing tutorial here.


Final Recap

The first thing to decide is what size filters you want to buy.  This will mainly come down to your budget and the gear you plan to use.  Many people start off with 1.25” filters and get great photos!  I personally went with the 36mm unmounted filters, to limit the chance of vignette in my photos.  After the incredibly frustrating installation process, I wish I would've spent more money and just gotten the 2" threaded filters... 

Once you decide the size of filters you want, you should consider which brand to go with.  Astrodon is the best choice, but also the most expensive.  Their narrowband filters usually cost over $1,000 per filter!  I went with the ZWO filters, which are potentially the lowest grade filters available from the list.  My thought process was “I’m a beginner, I don’t know how much I’m going to enjoy this.  I’d rather not spend $4,000 on a set of filters.  The ZWO filters should be good enough quality, and I don’t think they will hold me back for quite a while.  For the price, this is probably a good starting point.”  Astronomik and Baader also make good quality filters for a reasonable price.

After you’ve figured out which size filters you want, along with the brand, you can pick out a filter wheel.  You’ll need to make sure that the filter wheel can hold your specific filters, since they all take different sizes.  Also, make sure the filter wheel has enough spots.  If you want to shoot both LRGB and Narrowband, the filter wheel should have at least 7 spots.  If you only want to shoot LRGB, then a 5 slot filter wheel should be plenty.  

Before you purchase your filters and filter wheel, just do some research and verify that they will both work together.  You shouldn’t have any problems, provided you matched the sizes up correctly, but it’s worth double checking online.  Cloudynights forum is your best bet.

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astrophotography filters lrgb monochrome narrowband Wed, 19 Feb 2020 22:05:45 GMT
Choosing your first Dedicated Astro Camera Choosing your first Dedicated Astro Camera

If you are considering purchasing your first astro camera, you’re probably overwhelmed!  Do I want a monochrome or color camera?  What brand should I go with?  Do I need filters?  How do I even use this camera?  We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get started!

*Before we get into all the details, I want to mention that I have no affiliation with any company, so I don’t really care what you buy.  My main goal is to help you make an informed decision.  I don’t have experience with every camera out there, so I can’t give specific recommendations on this camera or that camera.  I always recommend doing your own research on a specific camera model before you buy it.  CloudyNights and YouTube are great resources to hear feedback from fellow astrophotographers.



There are a number of astrophotography camera manufacturers, including Atik, ZWO, and QHY.  I’ve only ever used ZWO products, so I can’t give any first hand knowledge of Atik or QHY.  However, I’ve heard from many people that QHY cameras tend to have driver problems and compatibility issues with lots of computers.  Atik seems to be a very reliable and high-quality manufacturer, arguably one of the best in the market.  ZWO is one of the most popular companies in the astrophotography world right now, and for good reason.  They make a large variety of products targeting all the various interests – planetary, deep space, high-end cameras, entry-level cameras, auto-guiders, and more.

The main reason I chose ZWO was their ecosystem of products.  They’ve taken the Apple approach, and made a wide range of products that all work together fairly seamlessly.  For example, ZWO makes the ASIAir.  This device allows you to control your camera, auto-guider, and filter wheel all from your smartphone!  That means you can sit inside your warm house on a cold winter’s night and relax while your camera is outside doing the work.  In the past, I had to leave an old laptop sitting outside with my gear.  Every 15 or 20 minutes I would go check everything out and make sure there were no problems.  This wasn’t very practical.  Now, with the ASIAir, I can instantly see if there’s a problem!

The Galactic CoreThe Galactic CoreA detailed look at the Milky Way galaxy, the Lagoon Nebula and Trifid Nebula can be seen as well You can capture some amazing photos with a simple DSLR and lens!  This was taken with my Nikon D750 and Tokina 100mm Macro lens


DSLR vs Dedicated Astro Camera

If you are a DSLR user, then you are already used to the color camera workflow.  We normally take a series of exposures, stack them together, then edit the final image in Photoshop.  All things considered, it’s a fairly straightforward process.  While DSLRs make astrophotography easy, they do have some notable flaws.  These include the Bayer Array, IR Cut Filter, and lack of cooling. 

The Bayer Array is what allows a color camera to actually capture color photos.  I’d recommend reading this article for a succinct overview of the Bayer Array.  The downside of the Bayer Array is that it limits the light gathering potential of a camera sensor.  It also lowers the color resolution in a photo.  

The IR Cut Filter is designed to block UV and IR wavelengths from reaching the sensor, while allowing the visible color wavelengths through.  The visible light spectrum ranges from 400nm (violet) to 700nm (red).  Ultraviolet light is found below 400nm, while Infrared light is found above 700nm (roughly anyway).  Unfortunately, the IR Cut Filter tends to block the red color emitted by many nebulae in the night sky.  The main emission is Hydrogen Alpha, which is the color red.  Many nebulae produce a lot of H-Alpha light, but the IR Cut filter blocks up to 90% of it.  This is why some companies have started offering camera sensor modifications.  They will replace the stock IR Cut Filter with a modified one that will allow more of those near IR wavelengths through.  That means more red colors and less noise! 

DSLRs tend to overheat very easily when doing astrophotography.  We normally take 1 – 5 minute long exposures, and the sensor generates a lot of heat during this time frame.  The use of Live View will also heat up a camera sensor.  All of this heat tends to generate hot pixels, brightly colored dots that appear all over the image.  There are ways to remove hot pixels, both in-camera and in post-processing, but it would still be better to cool the sensor down.

Dedicated Astro Cameras solve all three of these problems!  A monochrome camera will not have a Bayer Array, which means it will be more sensitive to light and produce higher-quality images.  In most cases, these astro cameras do not have an IR Cut Filter either, so they are more sensitive to near Infrared wavelengths.  Finally, dedicated astro cameras tend to have built-in cooling, so you can keep the sensor cold and limit the amount of heat-related noise!

There are some downside to using a dedicated astro camera though, especially if you are used to a DSLR.  Most notably, the astro cameras do not have an LCD screen or buttons!  That means you’ll need to control everything from a laptop or your smartphone.  This can be a nice benefit though, depending on how you look at things.  Astro cameras also tend to have lower resolution sensors than DSLRs.  That means your images won’t look as great if you want to print out large photos.  With that said, astro cameras are quickly closing-in on DSLRs, and ZWO recently announced a full-frame monochrome camera!

I used a DSLR for 5 years, and I was able to capture some incredible photos!  However, I eventually started to reach the limits of my DSLR and I wanted to take things to the next level.  Once I reached this point, my biggest dilemma was what type of astro camera to buy – monochrome or color?

Picture saved with settings embedded. A monochrome camera should allow you to capture very clean, detailed images with lots of great color!  


Monochrome or Color?

Astro cameras usually come in two flavors – monochrome or color.  Depending on which option you go with, your workflow will be completely different.  Monochrome cameras require more work, and money, but they should provide higher quality images.  Color cameras are much simpler to use, but the results won’t be as good.

If you want to keep things simple, and cheap, I would recommend starting off with a color camera first.  This will limit the amount of additional gear you’ll need to buy, and your post-processing workflow will be much simpler.  To be honest, I have not used a color astro camera yet, so I can’t give any first-hand recommendations.  However, there are plenty of online resources who can point you in the right direction, including AstroBackyard and Chuck’s Astrophotography. 

If you are ready for a new challenge, and you’ve got the cash, then I’d recommend jumping into the deep end with a monochrome camera.  That’s what I did.  The first thing to understand is that monochrome cameras will only take images in black-and-white, they will never be able to take a color image.  To be clear, if you use filters and special post-processing you can ultimately create a color photo.  The camera itself will always produce monochrome images though.


LRGB Filters

Very simply, you’ll need to buy at least one set of filters to get the most out of your monochrome camera.  The most common is “LRGB” – Luminance, Red, Green, and Blue.  These filters will attach to your telescope or filter wheel, and they only allow a certain range of wavelengths through.  For example, the Red filter will let between 600nm – 700nm through to the camera sensor.  The images will still be monochrome, but you will have captured only red wavelengths.  You can then swap to the Blue filter and take another photo, this time only capturing blue wavelengths.  Same with Green.  The Luminance filter will allow you to capture between 400nm and 700nm all at once!  This Luminance filter is mainly designed to capture the detail of a nebula.  Once you have the separate Red, Green, and Blue color channels, as well as the Luminance, you can create a color photo!  There are a few different ways to do this, but we’ll get to that in a later article.

It’s important to understand that you’ll need to take 4 sets of photos with the LRGB filters.  If you had a color camera, you could take one set of photos, stack them, and begin your processing.  Therefore, a monochrome camera can take up to 4 times as long to create an image!  You'll also need to stack each color channel independently, which will increase the editing time.

Picture saved with settings embedded. If you use a monochrome camera, you only technically need two different filters to create a full color image.  This photo was created with just H-Alpha and Oxygen filters.  (I can reuse the Oxygen data for both Green and Blue color channels.  H-Alpha stays on Red)


Narrowband Filters

You can also buy a set of Narrowband Filters, which will allow you to use your monochrome camera in light polluted areas, or even during the full moon!  Narrowband filters will only allow a very specific wavelength through.  The three narrowband filters are usually – Hydrogen Alpha (Ha), Oxygen (OIII), and Sulfur (SII).  Since these filters only allow a very small range of wavelengths through, all other light will be blocked, including light pollution and moonlight!  Once you’ve captured photos with at least two of these filters, you can create a color image in post-processing.  However, these won’t be “real” colors.  You can use a variety of “color palettes” when editing your photos, and change how the final image will look.  I recommend reading this article for more information. 


Pixel Size and Sensor Size

The pixel size and sensor size are very important, and they will change what you are able to capture with your camera.  You must pick a camera with the proper pixel size for your current telescope or lens.  If you mismatch the two, you will not get good results.

Sensor Size 

Let’s start with sensor size, since this is a topic DSLR users are familiar with.  A full frame camera sensor is 36mm x 24mm.  This is quite large!  Full frame cameras generally perform better in low-light, which is why they are recommended for Milky Way photography.  Full Frame cameras also do not have any crop factor.  This allows you to get a wide Field Of View with a wide-angle lens.  I’ve been using a full frame Nikon D750 for the past 5 years, and I really like it!

As the sensor size gets smaller, the low-level light performance usually suffers, and there’s a crop factor that must be accounted for.  APS-C is the most common crop factor, and is found on most entry-level Canon, Sony, and Nikon cameras.  An APS-C sensor is 23.5mm x 15.6mm on Nikon, and 22.3 x 14.9mm on Canon.  Since the sensor is smaller, the images will be magnified by a factor of 1.5x on Nikon and 1.6x on Canon.  Therefore, you must multiple the focal length of your lens or telescope to get the proper Field Of View.  A 500mm lens placed on an APS-C camera will have the same Field of View as a 750mm lens on a full frame camera.  (500mm x 1.5 = 750mm)

As I'm reading through this, even I'm getting confused with all these numbers and equations.  Thankfully there's an easy way to visualize everything.  Check out Telescopius, and the Telescope Simulator.  You can change the focal length and sensor size to match any camera/telescope you plan on buying.  This will help you to see the types of images you can capture.  You'll just need to do some research on your camera's actual sensor size (in mm), to input the correct data into the telescope simulator.

Most dedicated astro cameras have 1” sensors, or Micro Four Thirds (4/3”) sensors.  The 1” sensor has a 2.7x crop, compared to a full frame camera.  That means a 500mm lens placed on this sensor will have the same FOV as a 1,350mm lens on a full frame camera!  Meanwhile, the 4/3” sensor has a 2x crop.  As you can see, these small sensors will have a massive impact on the photos you can capture!

Arc Seconds Per Pixel

Before we get into this, I’d recommend looking at this graph.  It sums up everything I’m about to explain very clearly.

In order to get the best results with your astro camera, you need to pair it with the proper lens or telescope.  Thankfully, there’s a simple equation that will quickly tell you how your proposed setup will work.

(pixel size / focal length) x 206 = arc seconds per pixel

As you are looking at the different astro cameras, you should see a spec sheet which includes the camera's pixel size.  It's usually listed in micro-meters, or μm.  For example, ZWO lists all the relevant specs near the top of the page.  In this case, the pixel size is 3.8um.

The focal length should be fairly easy to find for your current lens or telescope.  Just make sure it’s the actual focal length.  For example, the William Optics RedCat 51mm.  The 51mm refers to the diameter of the lens, not the focal length.  The focal length of the RedCat is 250mm.

Once you’ve found the camera's pixel size and the lens' focal length, you can plug in the numbers and figure out your “arc seconds per pixel” rating.  Generally, you want this number to be between 1 – 2.  As you get above 2, the higher the number, the worse the results.  The technical term is undersampling, in other words, you don’t have enough zoom.  You can either buy a lens/telescope with more focal length, or buy a camera with smaller pixels.  Either way, it should lower the “arc seconds per pixel” rating and give better results.  On the other hand, if the number is below 1, then you are oversampling.  You have too much zoom!  Don’t forget to look at the graph I linked to earlier in this section for a quick idea of what will work best.

Just to be completely clear on this section, use the formula: (pixel size / focal length) x 206 = arc seconds per pixel  Either use your current gear, or the gear you plan to buy.  If the number is higher than 2, you need more zoom or smaller pixels.  Realistically, most people won't get a number below 1, unless they have a huge telescope already.  


Final Recap

There’s a lot to consider when purchasing your first astro camera!  The first thing to determine is whether you want a monochrome or color sensor.  A color sensor will be much easier to use, and the workflow will be similar to a DSLR.  A monochrome camera will require much more time, effort, and money.  You'll need to buy at least one set of filters, usually LRGB.  I'd also recommend getting a filter wheel, which will hold all of your different filters.  (I'll be explaining this further in next week's article.)  If you decide to get a monochrome camera, you'll be spending at least $500, if not $750+, just to have the equipment to create a color photo.  You also need to take photos with each filter.  Rather than spending one hour photographing Orion, you may need to spend an entire night!  It will also take much more time to process and edit those photos into a color image.

After you've decided between color or monochrome, you need to think about the pixel size and sensor size.  These will have a massive impact on the compositions you are able to capture.  For example, I usually recommend 400mm - 600mm on a full frame camera.  This allows you to fill the frame nicely with some of the most beautiful objects in the night sky - Orion, Andromeda, Pleiades, Horsehead Nebula, Rosette Nebula, etc...  If you have a smaller sensor or smaller pixels, you won't need as much zoom.  A micro-four/thirds or 1" sensor would only need about 200mm - 400mm to get similar results.  

No matter which brand or type of camera you choose, the pixel size is critical!  You must match the pixel size to your current telescope or lens.  If you do not, you may get mediocre results and ultimately waste money and time.  Remember, you want the “arc seconds per pixel” to be between 1 – 2 for the best results.  Once you get to 3, 4, 5+, you will be severely undersampling.  In other words, you don't have enough zoom.  You'll either need to buy a bigger lens or telescope, or get a camera with smaller pixels.  

For more information, be sure to watch this week's video:


[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) 1600mm asi astro astrophotography camera color crop dedicated factor lrgb monochrome pro sensor zwo Wed, 12 Feb 2020 18:31:10 GMT
Pairing a Camera with a Telescope / Lens Pairing a Camera and Lens / Telescope for Astrophotography

Astrophotography is a fairly complicated hobby, and there's a lot to learn!  One of the most important aspects of astrophotography is picking the correct camera for your lens or telescope (and vice versa!)  For all my fellow photographers out there, we are very familiar with focal length, and how that affects our images.  As you'll learn though, focal length is just the tip of the iceberg!  In this article I will break down all the major points, and simplify things as much as possible.  

The Galactic CoreThe Galactic CoreA detailed look at the Milky Way galaxy, the Lagoon Nebula and Trifid Nebula can be seen as well Of all the images I've taken, this is still one of my favorites!  I used a Tokina 100mm Macro lens, Nikon D750, and an iOptron SkyTracker Pro to take a single 60 second photo.



Focal Length

Let's start off with focal length, since this is the easiest to understand.  More focal length means more zoom, and any objects you are photographing will appear larger in the frame.  This can be hard to quantify when it comes to deep space astrophotography though.  Thankfully, I've got plenty of sample images to give you an idea of how the different objects will look.  For the rest of this section, I will be focusing on focal lengths with a Full Frame camera, like the Canon 5D or Nikon D850.  We'll cover crop-sensors, and how they affect focal length, later on.

Now that I've photographed most of the large objects in the night sky with a variety of lenses, I've got a pretty good idea of how the focal length will change the composition.  I recommend using at least 250mm.  At this focal length, even the largest objects (like the Andromeda Galaxy) will be fairly small in the frame.  You will need to crop in quite considerably to get a great photo.  If you have a lower-resolution sensor, this crop will cause problems with the image quality.  However, if you've got a high-res sensor like the Nikon D850, you can crop in quite close and still retain a lot of detail.

This comparison shows the Andromeda Galaxy at 150mm, 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm.  The original photo was taken at 500mm and edited in Photoshop.  I then scaled it to show the galaxy would look at these various focal lengths.  The Andromeda Galaxy is also one of the largest objects in the night sky.


I personally like shooting between 400mm - 600mm for most of the deep space objects.  Let's be clear, when I say deep space objects I'm referring to the brightest and largest objects in the night sky.  For a full list, check out my Deep Space Course, which focuses on 12 different objects.  Once you get to 400mm, you should be able to fill most of the frame with these objects.  As the zoom in further, and the objects get larger in the frame, you will be able to pull out more details.  However, there is a drawback to consider. 

The more zoom you have, the more accurate your tracking has to be.  Instead of shooting 2 minute exposures at 250mm, you will be lucky to get sharp stars at 30 seconds when shooting 400mm+.  Of course, this largely depends on your polar alignment accuracy, balance, the tracker itself, and whether you have an auto-guider.  

Before I purchased an auto-guider, I was limited to 30 second exposures with my Tamron 150-600mm lens.  This was never enough time to capture the light that I needed.  Even if I took 100 photos and stacked them, I would still have problems baked into the final image.  Most notably, there's an ugly purple glow at the bottom of my photos.  Once I started using an auto-guider though, I could easily shoot 2+ minutes with sharp stars!  For more information on auto-guider, check out my article here.



As I was doing research for this article, I learned about a great resource -  This website allows you to input your focal length and sensor size to get an accurate view of how large the objects will appear.  Now you can quickly see how an object will look with any give combination of camera and lens!

Once you get to the Telescope Simulator page you can select any object you plan on photographing.  You'll want to make sure you input your focal length and sensor size in the appropriate boxes.  If you're not sure what your sensor size is, this website should tell you.  A Full Frame sensor is usually 36mm x 24mm.  This is a great way to try different combinations and determine what focal length or sensor size you should consider buying.



If you have a 70-200mm lens, you may also have a teleconverter laying around.  These usually come in 2 versions - 1.4x and 2x.  The 1.4x teleconverter will give you a small boost in focal length, but you will also lose a stop of light.  That 70-200mm f/2.8 lens will now act like a 98-280mm f/4 lens.  That's not much more zoom, and you're capturing half the amount of light you were at f/2.8!  The 2x teleconverter will go much further, but also cost you 2 stops of light (that's 4 times less light)!  That lens will now act like a 140mm - 400mm f/5.6 lens.  That might sound pretty good, essentially equivalent to a 100-400mm f/5.6 lens.  However, teleconverts aren't designed for astrophotography.  Therefore, you may see severe star distortion and chromatic aberration, among other problems.  if you have one, feel free to try it, but I would not recommend buying one specifically for astro.

Just to recap, I generally recommend 400mm - 600mm for most of the objects that we can capture with a DSLR.  If you only have a 70-200mm lens, most of the objects will appear quite small in the frame.  This causes them to lose that "wow" factor.  If your budget allows it, I'd recommend getting something like a 100-400mm or 150-600mm lens.

This photo was taken with a stock Nikon D750, William Optics Space Cat, SkyGuider Pro, and ZWO ASIAir.  This combo is very portable and lightweight, and provides excellent results!  The only downside is the relatively short 250mm focal length of the Space Cat, but it worked nicely for this composition



Camera Lens or Telescope?

Almost all of my deep space images have been taken with camera lenses, usually the Tamron 70-200mm G2 or the Tamron 150-600mm.  These both do a surprisingly good job!  The best part is the versatility.  I can use these lenses for landscapes and wildlife photography during the day, and astro at night!  Therefore, I highly recommend starting off with whatever camera lenses you currently have.  There are a few things you need to watch out for though.

Since camera lenses aren't specifically designed for astrophotography, they may exhibit some problems.  The two big ones are chromatic aberration and coma.  Chromatic Aberration is a colored line around high-contrast areas, like stars.  This may manifest as a bright blue or purple glow around your stars.  In some cases the chromatic aberration is so bad, it completely ruins a photo.  Telescopes can also have this problem, especially cheaper ones.  One trick to reducing chromatic aberration is "stopping down the lens".  Rather than shooting wide open, at f/2.8 for example, you can intentionally use a smaller aperture like f/4.  You'll capture less light, but the stars may appear sharper and have less chromatic aberration.  It is possible to remove chromatic aberration in post-processing, but the results will vary from lens to lens.

Coma is a unique star distortion that will change for every lens.  I recommend reading this thorough analysis of the various types of coma.  I honestly don't see too much coma with most telephoto lenses, this is mainly a problem with wide angle lenses between 35mm - 85mm.  Coma can usually be corrected fairly easily by stopping the lens down.  For example, my Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART lens has terrible coma at f/1.4.  The stars look like birds!  The only way to fix this problem is by using f/4.  At that point the stars are finally sharp.  However, f/4 captures 8 times less light than f/1.4!  

To be honest, I don't really have much experience with telescopes.  The only telescope I actually own is the 250mm William Optics Space CatIt does a nice job, but it's not exactly a big fancy telescope.  Therefore, I can't give any real recommendations.  I would recommend checking YouTube and the CloudyNights forum before you buy any telescope.  Both platforms are great repositories of sample images and user feedback.  I'd recommend reading this article for more information on the different types of telescopes..

I have much more experience with camera lenses, but there are still too many to choose from!  My general advice would be to get a 100-400mm lens, or a 150-600mm lens.  These will both provide enough zoom to capture incredible photos!  I really like the Tamron brand of lenses, they've come a long way in the past few years.  Their latest lenses rival the first party options from Canon, Sony, and Nikon, for a fraction of the price!

If you are thinking of buying a new lens or telescope, there are two main factors to consider - Aperture and Focal Length.  I'd recommend at least 400mm for the focal length.  This should be enough zoom for most of the big nebulae and galaxies in the night sky.  I would not go higher than 800mm though.  This will be overkill unless you have a high-end "Go-To" telescope mount.  Just keep in mind that the size, weight, and price of a lens / telescope will increase along with the focal length and maximum aperture.

My final recommendation really depends on your current setup.  If you're like me, and have a DSLR, telephoto lenses, tripod, and a star tracker, then there's really no need for a telescope.  You might as well stick with your current lenses, or consider buying a new telephoto lens.  You can use it for both astrophotography and your "normal stuff" - portraits, wildlife, landscapes, etc...  I would only recommend buying a telescope if you are also considering a dedicated astrophotography camera.  In that case, you'll probably want to get a higher end mount too.

This photo was taken with the William Optics Space Cat telescope.  Since it was only 250mm, the Andromeda Galaxy was fairly small in the frame and I had to crop quite a bit to get this final image.  I've gotten better photos of this galaxy using a standard camera lens like the Tamron 150-600mm.  In most cases, telescopes aren't magically better than a telephoto lens.  They may be cheaper and lighter though!



Aperture and Shutter Speed

The two most important camera settings for astrophotography are aperture and shutter speed.  The shutter speed depends on a few factors - your polar alignment accuracy, whether or not you are using an auto-guider, the build quality of your star tracker, your focal length, and how well balanced your setup is.  If you have everything perfect, you could probably shoot up to 10 minute exposures at any given focal length.  Realistically though, I'm happy if I can get 3 or 4 minute exposures at 400mm+.  A longer shutter speed is one of the best ways to get higher quality images.  As the total exposure time increases, your camera's "white noise" will become less apparent.  This white noise is visible in your photos when you don't capture enough light.  On my D750 it mainly manifests as a purple glow at the bottom of the photo.  This was a nightmare to deal with, until I began using a star tracker and taking longer exposures.  Once I was able to shoot 3+ minute exposures, the problem completely disappeared!  Taking longer photos is one way to reduce the your camera's "white noise", and increase the detail in your photos.

A wider aperture is another way to capture more light, and reduce any visible "white noise" generated by your camera.  I use a Tamron 150-600mm f/5 - f/6.3 lens for most of my deep space astrophotography.  As I zoom in, the lens captures less light.  At 600mm I only have an f/6.3 aperture, which does not transmit much light at all.  Therefore, I need to shoot longer exposures to overcome the small amount of light transmission.  There are some lenses that have a fixed aperture, like the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6.  A fixed aperture passes the same amount of light through regardless of the focal length. 

You can also get a telescope or lens that is a fixed focal length, like a 500mm f/4.  The downside of a fixed focal length is that you cannot zoom in or out.  If you're trying to find a distant galaxy or nebula without a Go-To tracker, a fixed focal length can make your life much more difficult.  When I'm trying to find my objects at night, I start at 150mm and take test photos until I see the object.  Then I can zoom in, focus, and recenter the object again.  A zoom lens is a nice thing to have at night!  Meanwhile, all telescopes will be fixed focal length.

Let's do some quick math problems.  As a reminder, here are the main aperture values.  As we go up or down the list, we either double or halve the amount of light.  So f/4 will transmit twice as much light as f/5.6.  Let's say my Tamron lens is at 400mm with an aperture of f/5.6.  If I were to go out and purchase a 400mm f/4 lens, I have now doubled the amount of light that will pass through to my camera.  That's pretty good!  Instead of having to shoot a 4 minute long exposure, I can get the same results in just 2 minutes now!  Instead of spending 2 hours capturing photos at f/5.6, I can spend 1 hour capturing photos at f/4 and get the same amount of light.  If I were to go even further, and buy an f/2.8 lens, I would capture up to 4 times more light than the f/5.6 lens!  That means even shorter exposures, and less time to spend on an object.

So you might be thinking "Great!  I'll just run out and buy a 400mm f/2.8 lens then!"  Not so fast.  First, those lenses usually cost more than a car!  Second, they are usually very large and heavy.  If you have a SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer, it will not be able to handle such a big lens.  If you have a legit telescope mount, then you could probably make this work.  Although, you may be better off investing in a telescope rather than a big 500mm f/4 lens.  They are usually much lighter and cheaper.    

This also brings me to a small point about Fresnel lenses.  This is a special type of glass, like you'd see on a lighthouse.  It is much lighter than normal glass, and can drastically reduce the size and weight of a lens.  However, due to the glass design, it deforms the stars.  You wouldn't want to use a Fresnel lens for any astrophotography.  Here's an example of a fresnel lens - the Nikon 300mm f/4 PF.



For most people, the best thing you can do is take longer exposures.  This will have a big impact on your overall image quality, without needing to spend thousands of dollars on a new lens or telescope.  Although, you may need to get an auto-guider to make sure your star tracker is accurate enough to shoot 30+ second exposures at 400mm+.  If you've got the cash though, it might be a good idea to invest in a faster lens.  If you can get down to f/4, that would be great!  I wouldn't stress about getting down to f/2.8.  Just remember, the lens can't be too large and heavy!  I wouldn't get a lens heavier than 6 lbs.  The SkyGuider Pro and Star Adventurer can handle "11 lb payloads", but I wouldn't push it that far.  At most, I would put about 8 or 9 lbs on them.  That includes your camera body, L-Bracket, lens, auto-guider, guide-scope, and whatever else you may have attached.  If you have a legit telescope mount that can handle a large payload, then go for it!  If your mount can handle 20lbs+ you might as well invest in a quality lens or telescope.

Camping in the Great Sand DunesCamping in the Great Sand DunesCamping in my MSR Hubba Hubba in the Great Sand Dunes

The biggest problem I faced as an amateur astrophotographer was the purple glow caused by a lack of light.  This purple glow was always visible in my astro images, and I had to go to extreme lengths to hide it.  That's why a lot of my earlier images had strange color balances like you see here.  This color scheme did a good job of hiding the purple color at the bottom of my images.  Once I got a star tracker, I realized there was a simple fix - just take longer exposures!  Now I take 4+ minute photos and I no longer have to deal with ugly, grainy, purple photos at night.


Crop Sensors

There tends to be some confusion around crop-sensor cameras, especially when it comes to focal length and astrophotography.  Let's start off with the basics first.  A crop sensor Nikon DSLR, like the D3500 or D5600, will magnify the image by a factor of 1.5x.  Therefore, your 70-200mm lens will have a Field of View (FOV) similar to a 105mm - 300mm on a Full Frame camera.  For Canon shooters, you'll need to multiply your focal length by 1.6x.  Therefore, that same lens will look like 112mm - 320mm.  As you can imagine, this magnification drastically increases with higher focal lengths.  A Tamron 150-600mm lens on a Nikon D5600 will look like a 225mm - 900mm lens. 

The outer image was taken with a 14mm lens on my full frame Nikon D750.  I had a very wide Field of View that allowed me to capture a nice foreground and sky.  The inner image was taken with the same 14mm lens, but placed on a crop-sensor camera.  Since the crop sensor magnified the image by a factor of 1.5x, I have a narrower Field of View equivalent to about 21mm.  This is not ideal for Milky Way photography, where we want a wider Field of View.


While crop-sensors aren't ideal for Milky Way photography, they are a good idea for deep space astrophotography!  If you use a crop-sensor camera with a telephoto lens, you will automatically crop out most of the vignette and star distortion.  That's because of the image circle.  Full Frame lenses produce a large image circle that's designed to cover a full frame sensor.  However, your crop sensor is much smaller, so it only sees the center of the image circle.  The center usually has the sharpest stars, and minimal vignette.

 I took 2 photos, one with a Nikon D5600 and one with a Nikon D750.  Both were taken with the William Optics Space Cat telescope (250mm).  As you can see, the D5600 image only fills the center of the frame.  Therefore, all of the vignette and star distortion in the corners is automatically cropped out.  I don't have to worry about taking flat frames now!  Plus, the additional magnification of the D5600 will allow me to get closer to the Orion Nebula.

Next, let's talk about using DX mode on a Full Frame camera.  This is a setting you can enable in your camera's menu.  Once you turn on DX mode, the camera will automatically crop the photo by a factor of 1.5x.  To be clear, this is not the same as actually using a crop-sensor camera.  This might make more sense if you look back at the images above.  Both the Full Frame D750 and Crop-Sensor D5600 have 24 megapixel sensors.  If I turn on DX mode on my D750, I will now capture what you see in the center photo.  However, I will have lost quite a bit of resolution due to the crop.  Meanwhile, the D5600 is starting off "zoomed in", and it has the full 24 megapixel resolution.  Since the starting point is already zoomed in, I can crop even further and retain more detail.  Hopefully that makes sense! 

The DX mode automatically crops your photo after you take it.  You could do the exact same thing in post-processing.  In fact, that's what I recommend!  Why crop in-camera and lose that data forever when you could just crop later on?  If you turn on DX mode in-camera you will be reducing the resolution of the file, and limiting yourself in the future.

All of the deep space photos you've seen on my website were taken with a Full Frame camera.  If I had an unlimited budget, I would likely buy a crop-sensor camera too.  The crop-sensor would allow me to get a bit more detail out of the smaller objects in the night sky with any given lens.  To be honest though, the results would be marginally better in most cases.  If you are ready to take things to the next level, you'd be better off investing in a dedicated astrophotography camera.  I'll cover this further down in the article.

I decided to use a Nikon D5600 (crop-sensor) during the Lunar Eclipse, rather than my Nikon D750.  The 1.5x crop factor caused the moon to fill more of the frame, and create an impressive image.



Pixel Size  

If you've made it this far without getting completely lost, congratulations!  Now we're going to get a bit more technical.

Pixel Size is one of the most important factors to consider when buying a camera for astrophotography.  The pixel size of your camera and focal length of your lens/telescope are the two main factors that determine how large an object will appear.  I recommend using this website to find your own camera's pixel size.  The main field we are interested in is "Pixel Pitch", which tells us how large the pixels are.  As you can see here, my Nikon D750 has a pixel size of 5.95 micrometers.  That's pretty big for a DSLR!  Meanwhile, the Nikon D5600 has a pixel size of 3.89 micrometers.

If you compare the crop-sensor Nikon D5600 with the full-frame Nikon D750, you'll notice a few important differences.  The Nikon D750 has a much larger sensor, this extra surface area translates into more light gathering capabilities.  In other words, the full-frame camera is able to capture more light and perform better in low-light scenarios.  On the other hand, the crop-sensor camera has smaller pixels and a higher pixel density.  This translates into more detail and resolution when photographing distant nebulae and galaxies.

If you are purchasing a dedicated astrophotography camera, like the ZWO ASI 1600mm, you should be able to find the pixel size on the main spec sheet.  In this case, the ASI 1600mm Pro has a pixel size of 3.8um.  I also want to point out that the ZWO ASI 1600MM has a "micro four thirds" sized sensor.  This is even smaller than APS-C.  A 4/3" sensor will magnify the image by a factor of 2.  So a 300mm lens placed on a ZWO 1600MM would have a similar field of view as a 600mm lens on my full frame D750.

Larger pixels will be able to capture and store more light than smaller pixels.  Larger sensors also have more surface area, and can capture more total light.  This is why I highly recommend a good full-frame camera and wide angle lens for Milky Way photography.  You get the best of both worlds - a wider field of view and less grain! 

Crop Sensor cameras are generally better for deep space astrophotography.  They usually have smaller pixels and a 1.5x crop factor, which will make the objects appear larger in the frame.  This should allow you to pull out more fine details.  The only downside is that the smaller pixels will capture less light, and the smaller sensor will have less total surface area to capture light.  That means you need to shoot longer exposures, and more of them, to overcome the camera's inherent "white noise".  

Hopefully this concept makes sense now.  Milky Way photographers will definitely want a full-frame camera with large pixels, paired with a sharp wide-angle lens.  This will provide excellent results when using a star tracker and my recommended shooting techniques.  If you would rather focus on deep space astrophotography though, then a crop-sensor camera or even a dedicated astro camera may be a better choice.  You'll need to take more photos, and have better tracking and guiding, but you should be able to pull out more detail.

The Pleiades fill the frame in this photo, taken with my Nikon D750, Tamron 150-600mm, and SkyGuider Pro. 



Arc Seconds Per Pixel

It's finally time to put everything together, and figure out how your camera will perform with any given telescope or lens.  We'll be using a fairly simple equation, but you'll need to know your camera's pixel size in micrometers and the focal length of your lens or telescope.  If you forget what your camera's pixel size is, visit this website and find your camera.  The main field we will be using is "Pixel Pitch".

(Pixel size / focal length) x 206 = arc-seconds per pixel

Let's start with my Nikon D750 and Tamron 150-600mm, which is one of my favorite combos.

(5.95um / 600mm) x 206 = 2 arc seconds per pixel

Now let's try my Tamron 70-200mm and Nikon D750.

(5.95um / 200mm) x 206 = 6.1 arc seconds per pixel


Okay great, we know the "arc-seconds per pixel", but what does that actually mean?  Very simply, you want the number to be between 1 - 2.  The higher the number, the worse your images will look.  The stars will appear blocky and many objects will look small in the frame.  This corresponds quite well with focal length.  As I mentioned, I like using 400mm - 600mm on my Nikon D750.  This gives me an "arc seconds per pixel" rating between 2 and 3.  If I were to use less focal length, from 200mm - 300mm, I just wouldn't have enough zoom to create a "wow!" image.  My arc second rating would be between 4 and 6.

This table was taken from Atik, an astrophotography camera manufacturer.  This is a very easy way to figure out what focal length will work best for your camera.  If you don't know your camera's pixel size is in um, click here to find out.  The field you are interested in is "Pixel Pitch".  My Nikon D750 has 5.95um, so my recommended focal length is around 600mm.  If I was using a D5600 though, which is 3.89um, I would only need a 400mm lens for ideal results.  Smaller pixels require less zoom, while larger pixels require more zoom!

If you've ever used PHD2 or the ZWO ASIAir, you may have seen the term "arc seconds", in regards to the guiding accuracy.  Arc Seconds are a measurement, and are routinely used in astrophotography to measure accuracy.  For example, in this PHD2 screenshot you can see a graph with a blue line.  The graph has +2", +4", and +8" above the center line, and -2", -4", and -8" below the center line.  These are arc seconds.  If I was using my 150-600mm and Nikon D750, my Arc Seconds Per Pixel rating is 2 (if I'm at 600mm).   Therefore, I'd want the blue line to stay between +-2".  If the line starts going +-4" or higher, my stars will likely lose their sharpness.  If I was using my 70-200mm though, I could be between +-6" in most cases, and not notice any problems with the stars.

Click here to see the full size image.  If you look closely, you'll see 2", 4" and 6" above the center graph line, and -2", -4", and -6" below the center line.  The blue line represents our tracking accuracy.  In this case, the blue line stays between +-2" in most cases.  If I was using my Tamron 150-600mm at 600mm, I need to make sure the blue line stays between +-2".  If I see it start jumping up higher than that, the movement will likely show up in the photo.  However, if I had my Tamron 70-200mm lens, I can have the blue line move around between +-6", and it wouldn't show up in the photo.  Remember, the more zoom you have, the more accurate your tracking has to be.



If you're a little confused (or completely lost!) let me simplify this as much as possible.  Remember back to focal length, and how that affects things.  We generally want more zoom, so the objects appear larger in the frame and we can see more details.  However, more zoom also requires more accurate tracking.  If your star tracker isn't up to the task though, you'll quickly see star trails.  That's basically the same idea with arc-seconds. 

For Arc Seconds, we generally want a small number, between 1 - 2.  In most cases, 2 is considered the sweet-spot.  We determine this "arc-seconds per pixel" number by the equation: (Pixel size / focal length) x 206 = arc-seconds per pixel  If this number is 5 or higher, you probably don't have enough zoom for the best results.  You can either buy a camera with smaller pixels, or get a larger lens/telescope.  Either way, it will lower your "arc-seconds per pixel" and give you better results.

I want to be clear here, I would only worry about "arc seconds per pixel" if you want to photograph deep space objects - like nebulae and galaxies.  If you want to photograph the Milky Way with a 70-200mm lens, or something similar, you can get some great photos!  All this arc seconds talk is really for people who want to take things to the next level.  In most cases, they'll be purchasing a dedicated astro camera, high-end mount, and telescope.  In my own experience, I've found myself wishing I had a better "arc-seconds per pixel rating" when photographing some of the nebula in my Deep Space Course.  I find that I can't capture the fine details nearly as well as other folks, who are using cameras with smaller pixels.

When it comes to guiding, arc seconds represent tracking accuracy.  Again, we want a low number here.  Ideally, the RA line on our PHD2 / ASIAir graph will stay around the center line - which represents 0" or perfect tracking.  Realistically though, the line will jump up and down between +-4" in most cases, if not higher.  I usually try to match my camera's arc-seconds per pixel rating with the guiding accuracy.  In other words, if my camera rating is 2", I want to see the line on PHD2 stay between + or - 2".  If it goes to +-4", or even +-8", then I know I'll likely have blurry stars.  I either need to figure out what's going wrong, or just shoot shorter exposures.

I recommend watching this video for more information on this topic.

Picture saved with settings embedded.

I'm still surprised how cool this photo turned out!  I took this image from a fairly light polluted area in Northeastern Ohio last winter.  I used a D750, Tamron 150-600mm, and SkyGuider Pro.  There were quite a few things that went wrong during the shooting process.  I forgot to double check the focus throughout the night, and found that all of my photos taken after about 20 minutes had blurry stars.  This was likely due to the cold air shrinking the lens slightly, and throwing off the focus.  I did not have an auto-guider when I took this photo either, so I was only shooting 30 second exposures.  Remember that ugly purple glow that is always present in my D750 photos?  It was here too, but I managed to edit the image in a way that suppressed it.  All things considered, it's a miracle I was able to get such an awesome shot with such terrible data!  If you want to learn how I edited this photo, check out my Deep Space Course.




Most people start off using a DSLR camera for their astrophotography.  DSLRs have a lot of benefits: high-resolution images, RAW capabilities, huge lens selection, rear LCD screen, easy controls, and more!  However, DSLRs do have some notable problems when it comes to astrophotography.  The three big problems, in my opinion, are the Bayer Array, IR Cut Filter, and the heat that builds up on the sensor.


Sensor Heat

If you've ever taken a photo longer than one minute, you may have noticed a bunch of bright dots all over the image.  These are called "hot pixels", and they are usually caused by the sensor overheating.  These hot pixels can ruin an amazing photo, especially if you are taking an 8+ minute photo during the day, using ND filters.  Thankfully, there's an easy fix!

Long Exposure Noise Reduction is a camera setting that can be enabled on most newer cameras.  When LENR is turned on, your camera will automatically take two photos - a light frame and a dark frame.  (It will only do this when shooting 1+ second exposures)  The Dark Frame will have the exact same settings as your normal photo, but the shutter will stay down.  This prevents any light from reaching the sensor, and allows the camera to map out the hot pixels in the photo.  Once the camera has both a dark frame and a light frame, it analyzes them for hot pixels and automatically removes them.

From a photographers perspective, turning on LENR will double your shutter speed.  Once you begin taking a 30 second photo, you will need to wait a total of 60 seconds before you can use the camera again.  The first photo will go like normal, but during the second photo (dark frame) the camera may say "Job Nr", and prevent you from pressing any buttons.  Once it finishes taking the dark frame, the camera should become usable again.  Keep in mind, you can always turn off the camera in the middle of the dark frame, if need be.  This will kill the second exposure, and prevent the camera from removing the hot pixels.  It shouldn't hurt anything though.  I sometimes do this if I know my photo got screwed up by someone's headlamp.  No point standing around wasting time on a ruined photo.

As you can see from the photo above, this process works very well!  However, there is one major downside.  Remember, LENR will always take two photos.  Therefore, if you take a 4 minute long exposure, the camera will take a total of 8 minutes to complete the image. (4 minute light frame + 4 minute dark frame).  This can drastically slow down your workflow, especially at night.  Instead of shooting dozens of compositions at night, you may be limited to just a few.  I only use LENR when I'm photographing my foregrounds for Milky Way photography, or when using ND filters during the day.

You may also notice some strange artifacts when using LENR, especially with a wide-angle lens and star tracker.  Please read my Nikon D750 article for more information on this problem.  

I want to be clear, I do not recommend using LENR when doing deep space astrophotography.  When we are photographing deep space objects, we tend to take dozens (if not hundreds) of photos and stack them together to reduce grain.  If you had LENR turned on, you'd be wasting half of your night taking dark frames.  As you'll learn in my Deep Space Coursewe can automatically remove hot pixels during our normal photo stacking process.  No dark frames required!


Bayer Array

Every DSLR has a Bayer Array filter, think of a checkerboard with Green, Blue, and Red squares.  These squares are little color filters that cover every pixel on your camera's sensor.  The green filters only let green light through to the sensor, blocking most of the red and blue light.  Likewise, the red filters block green and blue light, only allowing red light through.  Same with Blue.  This is what allows your camera to "see" color! However, the design does have some problems. 

Since green is one of the most prominent colors here on Earth, the Bayer Array usually has 50% green filters.  That only leaves 25% for red and 25% for blue.  Therefore, a lot of the light that reaches the sensor at night is not being used.  Remember, most of the red light that hits a blue or green filter is largely blocked from reaching the sensor.

For more technical information on the Bayer Array, I recommend checking out this article.

While the Bayer Array has made color photography easy, it tends to cause problems for astrophotography.  During the day, there's plenty of light entering the camera.  Who cares if some of the red or blue light doesn't reach the pixels.  At night though, we need every photon we can get!  Also, think about the various nebulae you've seen.  Do you recall seeing much green?

A Bayer Array will definitely reduce the light gathering capabilities of a sensor, but it's not a huge problem.  Newer sensors have truly amazing designs that funnel more light into the actual pixels.  The Bayer Arrays also don't block 100% of the light that hits a wrong colored filter.  However, a monochrome sensor, with no Bayer Array, should always produce cleaner results.  I'll explain monochrome sensors further down in the article.

There's one last thing to consider when photographing nebulae.  What wavelengths are they actually emitting?  By now you've probably heard of Hydrogen Alpha (H-Alpha), which is basically the color red.  The specific wavelength of H-Alpha is 656nm.  Unfortunately, most cameras block this end of the light spectrum, which leads us to another problem with DSLRs - the IR Cut Filter.


IR Cut Filter

Every DSLR has its own filter that blocks UV and IR wavelengths from reaching the sensor.  This "IR-Cut Filter" is a small piece of glass that is placed on top of your camera's sensor.  If you've ever opened up your camera, this is probably what you saw inside.  Every IR-Cut filter is a little different, but the main goal is to limit the wavelengths reaching the sensor to 350nm - 650nm.  This should capture the full range of color - from Violet to Red.  It will also block out the unwanted UV and IR wavelengths, which can cause problems for photography.  The human eye is able to see from roughly 400nm to 700nm, so it makes sense that our cameras should see the same wavelengths as us.

As I mentioned earlier, H-Alpha (656nm) is one of the most prominent wavelengths being emitted by nebulae.  This wavelength is usually blocked by most IR Cut filters.  In other words, your camera is unable to see the red light coming from the nebula!  Only a very small amount of that light will actually reach the pixels on your sensor.  If that H-Alpha light hits a green or blue filter on the bayer array, it will be mostly blocked too.  As you can see, these various DSLR problems are starting to add up.  This is where dedicated astrophotography cameras come in.

Picture saved with settings embedded. Rho Ophiuchi is a fun object to photograph in the summer.  I took this photo with a Tamron 70-200mm, Nikon D750, and SkyGuider Pro.  One problem I noticed is that my Nikon D750 is unable to capture the beautiful red colors that were present.  At best, I have some dim purple light, but not the beautiful H-Alpha light I would have liked to see.



One of the most common questions I get asked is "should I have my camera sensor modified?"  If you're unfamiliar with sensor modifications, let me explain.  The most common DSLR mod is an "H-Alpha conversion", where your camera's IR Cut filter is replaced with a new one which passes more of the 600nm - 700nm wavelengths through.  If you haven't seen them already, please look at these graphs.  As you can see, most IR Cut Filters block the red H-Alpha light from reaching your camera.  The average DSLR is only able to capture about 20% of the H-Alpha light being emitted by a nebula.  A modified IR Cut Filter will allow much more red light through.

There are also specific camera models which include a modified IR Cut filter by default, like the Nikon D810A and the new Canon EOS Ra.  These cameras are usually much more expensive than the standard DSLRs, but tend to have special programming that will make your night easier.  For example, the Nikon D810A has extended shutter speed options, allowing you to select past 30 seconds.  You can also zoom in further during Live View.  I've considered getting an astro camera like the EOS Ra, but decided that a real astrophotography camera may be a better investment.  We'll cover that in the next section.

If you are considering modifying your DSLR, be aware that there are usually two options.  We've already discussed the first option - H-Alpha.  The second option is called Full Spectrum, and it will completely change the way your camera works.  If you get the Full Spectrum mod, your IR Cut filter will usually be replaced with a clear piece of glass.  This glass does not block any UV or IR light.  Therefore, your camera can now see Ultraviolet, Visible, and Infrared wavelengths!  This has multiple benefits and drawbacks.

Let's start with the benefits of a Full Spectrum mod.  First, you can do UV or IR photography!  This can be a fun way to use an old camera, and capture unique photos.  Just be aware, you will need to purchase special filters.  These various filters will block visible, IR, and/or UV light, allowing you to focus on specific ranges.  If you don't use a filter, all of your images will have a strange purple color cast and you may have a hard time focusing.  All things considered, I'd generally recommend avoiding a Full Spectrum mod, unless you know what you are doing.

All of the photos you see on my website were taken with a stock Nikon D750, which does a terrible job of capturing H-Alpha light.  I've considered getting an H-Alpha mod, but ultimately decided against it for a few reasons.  First, I only have one DSLR and I need it to perform great for landscapes, wildlife, portraits, etc...  Second, I'd rather save that money and put it towards a dedicated astro camera in the future.  My Nikon D750 does well enough, especially with a few editing techniques.  Lastly, I've seen very heavy color casts with modified cameras.  These color casts can be a nightmare to remove, especially if you do wide-angle nightscapes.  All things considered, I don't see the point in getting my DSLR modified.

Most of the nebulae I capture have a purple color cast, since my DSLR is unable to see the red H-Alpha wavelengths.  If you get your camera modified, be warned!  You may now have a heavy red color cast in all of your photos, due to the abundance of H-Alpha light!



Mirrorless Cameras

I get quite a few questions on mirrorless cameras, so I figured I'd include a section in this article.  Overall, I think mirrorless cameras do a good job, but they have some problems.

A lot of people love the digital viewfinder.  It can show you a real-time preview of how your photos will actually look, you can see the zebra pattern to make sure your image is focused properly, you can view your playback images easily on sunny days, and much more.  However, I think the display usually looks like a cheap old CRT TV, not very pleasing to look at.  I've tried out various Nikon, Sony, and Canon mirrorless and they all seem to have the same quality viewfinder display.  If this doesn't bother you, than you'll probably love having a mirrorless camera!  I'd rather use the old optical viewfinder, so I'm fine with my DSLR for now.

If you've got a DSLR, and have been considering a mirrorless camera, don't forget about the different lenses!  Nikon uses a new Z-Mount, which is much larger than the old F-Mount.  Therefore, you need to buy a special adapter to utilize your lenses with the new camera body.  This adapter will add extra weight and bulk to a mirrorless setup.  If you want to get a new Z-Mount lens though, you'll be paying quite a bit more!  

I'm sure you've also heard about the infamous Sony Star-Eater bug.  Basically, the noise-reduction algorithm would accidentally target stars (thinking they were hot pixels or grain) and remove them from the photo.  To be honest, I try to do this in post-processing, since it can help make nebula, galaxies, and dust stand out better from a "noisy" background of bright stars.  However, many people were rightly disappointed because it affected RAW images, which shouldn't have any noise reduction applied anyway.

One of the best reasons to get a mirrorless camera for astro is the improved Live View.  With most new mirrorless cameras you can actually see the Milky Way in real-time when using Live View.  It really is amazing the first time you see it!  If you currently have a DSLR, then you know how hard it is to see anything during Live View at night.  At best, we can see a few bright stars.  If you've got bad eyes, a mirrorless camera can certainly make things easier for you at night.

There's one other thing to consider when choosing a mirrorless camera for astrophotography - sensor heat.  When you use Live View, the sensor is exposed to light and a signal is continually being sent to the camera's LCD screen.  This process generates a lot of heat!  Now, with a DSLR we don't have to use Live View, although it is very helpful for focusing and composing a shot.  A mirrorless camera will always be using some sort of Live View, either in the viewfinder or the rear LCD screen.  Therefore, a mirrorless camera will run hotter than a DSLR in most cases.  With all that being said, I wouldn't worry about the Live View heat too much.  If you take a 1+ minute photo your sensor will begin to overheat anyway, and hot pixels will begin to show up in your photos.  This is true of both mirrorless and DSLR cameras.  I normally take 4+ minute photos, and my photos are always covered in hot pixels.  This is why I use Long Exposure Noise Reduction to automatically remove them.  I want to reiterate though, I do not use LENR when doing deep space astro, only for foreground photos at night.

So, what's my final word on mirrorless?  I've considered getting one, but due to the lens selection, mediocre digital viewfinder, and bad ergonomics, I've held off.  If you plan to just use the mirrorless camera for astrophotography, either Milky Way or Deep Space, I think it will do a great job in most cases!  I'm fine with my DSLR for now though.

Picture saved with settings embedded. Sometimes you may want less zoom.  In this case I used a ~350mm focal length to capture both the upper and lower portions of the Veil Nebula.  Alternatively, I could have zoomed into 600mm and focused on a single piece.  



Dedicated Astrophotography Cameras 

Once you've mastered a DSLR for astrophotography, you can take things to the next level with a dedicated astrophotography camera.  These are quite different from DSLRs - they lack an LCD screen, there are no buttons, they have much smaller sensors (usually), and they don't even look like a camera!  Take a look at the ZWO ASI 1600MM, which is currently a popular astro camera.

I remember the first time I saw these little astro cameras, I was pretty confused!  Why would you want a small sensor?  Why are they so low-res?  Where is the screen?  How do you even take a photo?

Let's start with the most obvious problem - how do you take photos with a CCD-style camera?  The short version is that you'll need a laptop to control your camera.  Once your dedicated astro camera is connected to the laptop, you can use one of many different applications to take your images.  Alternatively, you could use the ZWO ASIAir, which will allow you to do a polar alignment, auto-guiding, and even take photos all from one app on your smartphone!  ZWO is currently (as of December 2019) preparing to release a new version of their ASIAir, but here's an overview of the original device.  Regardless which route you go down, you will be controlling everything from your laptop / smartphone application.  This can be both good and bad.

I normally spend 6 months living out of my car each year.  When I do astrophotography, it's a very involved process.  I'm always standing out there with my gear, making sure nothing goes wrong.  This sucks in the winter!  I'd rather not get frostbite standing around waiting for my camera to capture images.  This is where dedicated astro cameras will make your life a lot easier!  You can now sit inside your house, or car, and relax while the camera is hard at work outside.  Whether you are using a smartphone app or laptop connection, you can monitor how the photos look, adjust settings, and even switch filters around electronically, if you have a filter wheel.  

I'd recommend checking out Chuck's Astrophotography on YouTube, he has taken some incredible photos from his backyard in Detroit!  That's really the main selling point of dedicated astro cameras - you can capture amazing photos any time, any where!  This is revolutionary if you're accustomed to a DSLR, where you can only shoot during the New Moon and at a dark sky location.  If you've ever tried photographing a nebula from a big city, or during a full moon, you know that it's a pretty much a waste of time.  The extra light in the sky completely washes out the fine details, and you're lucky if you can even see the object you want to photograph.  Meanwhile, a dedicated astro camera can get Hubble-quality photos during a full moon in downtown Los Angeles!  How?

The answer is Narrowband Filters.  These are designed to block out all light, except for a very specific wavelength.  This opens up a whole new world of possibilities!  However, it does complicate the workflow.  The normal process for a DSLR is to take one set of photos, then stack them together.  This is fairly easy.  However, Narrowband filters will require you to take at least 2 sets of photos, if not 3 or 4!  To make things even more confusing, these images will likely be monochrome.  You need to do some extra steps in post-processing to actually create a color image.

This photo was captured with my ZWO ASI 1600MM Pro camera (which is monochrome).  I can use different filters (H-Alpha, Oxygen, Red, Blue) to capture all the colors I need.  Even though each image is black and white, I can still create a color photo in Photoshop.  It's actually really easy!


Monochrome vs Color Sensors

A dedicated astro camera will generally come in two variants - monochrome and "one-shot-color" (OSC).  ZWO uses a specific naming convention to differentiate the two.  Monochrome cameras are always labeled "MM", while color cameras are usually "MC".  Here are two ZWO cameras that are nearly the same, except that one is monochrome and the other is color.  Monochrome sensors are usually more expensive, which I find a bit odd.  You'd think the complexity of a Bayer Array would increase the price of color cameras...

The color cameras have a similar design to a DSLR - they include a bayer array.  This allows them to capture color photos.  Since these are dedicated astro cameras, they should perform a bit better at night.  For example, look at this graph from ZWO on their ASI 183MC camera.  Notice how much more light the camera captures, including the H-Alpha range?  As I understand it (and I may be wrong), most dedicated astro cameras do not have an IR Cut Filter.  Therefore, you will capture more H-Alpha light, but you may also have problems with star bloat.  Even though you have a color camera, you may still need to invest in filters that will block IR and UV light.  

Alternatively, you can buy a monochrome camera, which will only capture black and white images.  Now you might be thinking, "why would I want to take black and white photos of nebula?".  Well, the main reason is the increased sensitivity to light.  A monochrome sensor does not have a Bayer Array, so more light can reach the pixels.  However, you will need special filters to ultimately create a color image.  Click here for a great article on how filters work with monochrome cameras.

Once you purchase a monochrome astro camera, you will also need a set of filters to go along with it.  Let's start with the traditional Red, Green, and Blue filters.  As you can see here on Astronomik, there are various sizes to choose from - 1.25", 2" (M48) etc...  You will need to pick the correct size based off your telescope or filter wheel.  If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you may be familiar with UV ("Protection") filters for your camera lens.  These come in different sizes based on the filter thread of your lens.  For example, my Tamron 150-600mm has a 95mm thread, while my 24-70mm lens has a 77mm thread.  It's basically the same concept as the astro filters.  You need to make sure the filters will screw into your telescope or filter wheel.


New Workflow

*Caveat - I'm still new to this realm of astrophotography, so not everything in this section may be 100% accurate.  I'm explaining the process as I understand it.  I've never actually used a dedicated astro camera with filters yet, but I plan to in 2020.

Now that you've got your RGB filters, you can begin the new workflow.  This is going to be much more complex than a typical DSLR workflow though.  Let's do a quick recap first.  With a DSLR (or "One Shot Color" astro camera) you take a series of photos of your desired object.  Once you've captured at least an hour's worth of images, you should have enough total light captured.  You can now bring those photos to the computer, stack them, and edit the final image.  That's all there is to it!

If you have a monochrome camera though, you're going to need at least 3 sets of photos.  For example, we'll attach our Green filter and take an hours worth of images.  Then we can swap to a Blue filter and take another hours worth of photos.  Next, we'll switch to a Red Filter and capture another hour of photos.  You may also want to capture some Luminance photos.  Once you have your different sets of photos, you can now stack them and calibrate them in special software.  I believe you need to stack each color separately.  Once you have all your clean, stacked photos you can bring them into a program like Photoshop.  At this point you can finally create a color image!  You'll need to map the Red stack to the Red color channel, Blue to Blue, and Green to Green.

I almost forgot!  You'll also need to take Dark Frames.  Although, these will be much easier now that you have a cooled camera.  You could theoretically take your Dark Frames whenever you want, just make sure the sensor temperature is the same as it was when you took your light frames.  These dark frames should be included with each color stack, to "calibrate" them and help reduce any grain, amp glow, and hot pixels.  

If you will be using Narrowband filters, rather than RGB filters, it's going to be the same general workflow.  Instead of swapping between RGB though, you'd swap between an H-Alpha filter, Oxygen filter, and Sulphur filter.  Those are the common ones anyway...  Since you are capturing such a small amount of light, literally just a few nanometers, you will need to take even longer exposures, and more of them!  Once you've got your photos stacked, you can map the images to color channels in Photoshop.  But what color is Oxygen?  Or Sulphur?  Well, that's where the "Hubble Palette" comes in.


What You'll Need to Get Started

If you want to make the leap up to a dedicated astrophotography camera, you'll want to make sure you do things right!  I'm currently in the process of buying my first astro camera, so I can let you know what I've learned so far.

First, I want a good monochrome camera.  I realize this will complicate my workflow considerably, and take a lot more time to create a final image.  I'm hoping the results will be worth the extra effort!  I'm currently thinking of getting either the ZWO ASI 1600MM Pro or the ZWO ASI 183MM.  There are literally hundreds of other options, but these seem like a good choice for me.  I don't have a big telescope, so I can get away with using my 250mm Space Cat telescope for now.  The smaller pixels of either camera will help me to pull out fine detail in the nebulae and galaxies I want to photograph.  I could even buy a special adapter and use these cameras with my DSLR lenses.

A monochrome camera will also require a set of filters.  I'm planning on getting both RGB and Narrowband so I can image throughout the lunar cycle.  There are a lot of different filter companies to choose from.  The more money you spend, the higher quality the filters will be.  Cheaper filters will cause the stars to bloat and distort, among other problems.  I'm considering getting the new ZWO filters, since they are a reasonably priced, but I've heard the quality could be better.  You could also go with Astronomik, who make good products.  If money is no object, then I hear the Astrodon filters are the best on the market.  Before you invest in filters, you also need to consider which filter wheel you will be using.

A filter wheel can usually hold 4 different filters, if not more.  This will make swapping between filters much easier at night, especially if you use all ZWO equipment and have the ASIAir!  Here's one example of a filter wheel, the ZWO EFW Mini.  Note how the filter size is 1.25" or 31mm.  The 1.25" filters can be installed by screwing them onto your telescope or into the filter wheel.  However, this may cause some vignetting.  Therefore, you may want to spend a bit more and get the 31mm filters.  These will produce less vignette, but I believe they're a bit more cumbersome to install.  I recommend reading this article for more information on filter wheels.

Just to make sure you're thoroughly overwhelmed, ZWO also makes a special variant of both the ASI 1600MMGT and the ASI 183MMGT.  Both models have a built-in filter wheel, which should reduce the overall size of the camera.  I'm also considering getting one of these, rather than the standard models that require an external filter wheel.

You could get everything I've discussed so far in one easy bundle.  This should give you a clear idea of what you'll need.  That's assuming you've already got a lens or a telescope that's good for astrophotography.  Of course, you'll need a telescope mount or star tracker too!  At this point, we're starting to get into Chuck and Trevor's territory.  I'd recommend watching some of their videos to help wrap your mind around everything we've discussed today.

Picture saved with settings embedded.



Final Recap

If you managed to make it all the way to the end, congratulations!  I know this was a long read, and it may have taken you a few days to get through the whole thing.  We covered a lot of topics in this article, so I want to recap the most important points and give you my recommendations. 

First, I recommend using the Telescopius Telescope Simulator to see how your various lenses will work with your current camera body.  You can also input different camera sensor sizes and lens focal lengths and get an idea of how the objects will look before you buy anything!  I recommend looking at multiple different objects like the Andromeda Galaxy, Orion Nebula, Pleiades, North American Nebula to get a good overview.  If you decide you want to upgrade your camera or lens, you'll now have a much better idea of the results you can get!

I want to stress that I am a photographer first, so my point of view is a bit different than others in the field.  I also have minimal experience with dedicated astro cameras, telescopes, go-to mounts, and filters.  Everything I've done so far has been with a stock DSLR, telephoto lens, and a small star tracker.  I think I've shown quite definitively that you can get great photos with a modest setup.  You don't need to run out and buy a big telescope, heavy tracking mount, high-end monochrome camera, and multiple sets of filters.  However, if you are thinking of upgrading some of your components, or getting into the hobby more, I would recommend checking out both Chuck and Trevor over on YouTube.  They have a lot more experience with telescopes and dedicated astro cameras than me, and can provide more insight.  

Again, I want to stress that you don't need a new camera!  Even if your current camera is not ideal, you can capture a lot of great images with it!  This will also allow you to practice the workflow of astrophotography, before investing more money into the hobby.  The only time I would highly recommend getting a new camera is if your current one exhibits serious sensor-level problems.  I've seen some cameras have terrible banding issues, potentially caused by a defective or dying sensor.  A few small problems aren't a big deal, as you've seen with my images.  But if you've got thick purple lines running across your images, it might be time to upgrade!

If you decide to get a dedicated astro camera, be aware that it will greatly increase the learning curve and difficulty.  I would not recommend going this route until you've mastered astrophotography with a DSLR and telephoto lens.  I've spent countless hours over the past few years learning about astrophotography, and even I had a hard time wrapping my head around the complexities of a monochrome camera and RGB / narrowband setup.  Not only will the shooting process be more involved, you'll also need to step-up your post-processing skills.  You may need to start using more complicated programs like PixInsight for the best results.

The main takeaway of this article is pretty simple.  If you have reached the limits of your current gear, then you have a few different routes you can go down.  You could upgrade your lens / telescope, you can upgrade your camera, or you can upgrade your tracking mount.  Of course, if you've got the money you can do all three!  My main problem is that I don't have enough zoom, unless I use my big 150-600mm at 600mm.  I can't feasibly get a new lens, since my SkyGuider Pro cannot handle much more weight.  I could invest in a nice "Go-To" telescope mount, but I still travel too much.  There's no way I could fit a giant mount in my car that I'm living out of.  My best choice is to get a new camera with smaller pixels, which will translate into more fine detail in my deep space images.  I could buy a crop-sensor DSLR or mirrorless camera, or possibly even a modified camera like the Canon Ra.  However, this wouldn't take things to "the next level".  Therefore, my best bet is to go all the way and invest in a monochrome camera with both RGB and Narrowband filters.

If I decide to make this jump though, I need to be ready for the intense learning curve.  There will be a lot of headaches along the way, but I suppose that's a requirement for this hobby!  

In closing, I hope this article helped you out!  If you have any questions please leave a comment and I'll try my best to answer them.  I would also recommend checking out other astrophotography resources.  They'll have much more insight on picking your first telescope, mount, and astro camera than me.  I come from a photography background, so I do things a bit different.  I'm still using a DSLR, telephoto lens, and SkyGuider Pro but I'm looking forward to making a big leap in 2020!

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) arc seconds astrophotography canon dslr filters lens monochrome narrowband filters nikon OSC pixel RGB filters sensor sony telescope what camera should I get what telescope should I get ZWO ASI 1600MM Sat, 28 Dec 2019 16:16:43 GMT
William Optics High Latitude Base Review William Optics High Latitude Base Review

While I was reviewing the Space Cat, AgenaAstro was kind enough to send me a William Optics Latitude Base to test out.  This base comes in two different configurations – High Latitude (32-59) and Low Latitude (7-34).  You should choose the base depending on your shooting location.  For example, I normally take my photos in North America, which ranges from roughly 30 N to 45 N.  Therefore, the High Latitude base works well for me.  However, if you live closer to the equator, you should consider the Low Latitude base instead.

Before I get into the main review, I want to touch on the default iOptron and Sky-Watcher bases that come with the SkyGuider / SkyTracker Pro and the Star Adventurer / Star Adventurer Mini.  The iOptron bases are not well made. Almost everyone I talk to complains about the imprecise adjustments and flimsy design.  I’ve gotten used to the relative inaccuracy of the altitude and azimuth screws, and have learned to work around them.  However, I still get frustrated when I try to make precise adjustments during my polar alignment. 

The Sky-Watcher base has a few improvements over the iOptron base.  If you've read my Star Tracker Buying guide, then you know I tend to recommend the Sky-Watcher base, even if you have an iOptron SkyGuider Pro.  The most noticeable change is that the Sky-Watcher base goes from 0 to 90 degrees!  That means it will work anywhere in the world.  Like the iOptron base though, the azimuth / altitude screws could be more precise.  One problem that I've noticed with both the Sky-Watcher and iOptron bases is that the altitude knob tends to break off.  I've had multiple students lose their altitude knob, which renders the base completely useless!  There is a way to fix this, but you will need a very small allen wrench, which you likely won't have on you when you need it.

The William Optics base is in a whole new league!  The entire base is 100% CNC constructed.  The base itself is beautifully designed, and comes in three colors – Red, Blue, and Gold

Unlike the Sky-Watcher and iOptron bases, which are mainly plastic, the William Optics base is constructed from a very dense metal of some sort.  This makes it noticeably heavier and a bit bulkier too.  According to the specifications, the William Optics base weighs over 2 lbs!  (990 grams)  Meanwhile, the iOptron base weighs about 1 lb and the Sky-Watcher base weighs roughly 1.7 lbs.  If you are hiking into your location with a star tracker, you will notice the extra heft of the William Optics base.

The WO latitude base also has a very large locking knob.  I’m sure this will be nice on cold winter nights, when you are using gloves, but I really don’t understand why it’s so large.  I’m no engineer, but it just seems unnecessary to me, and it increases the size and weight.

Next, let’s talk about the most important part of any latitude base – the adjustment screws.  The WO base has very smooth and precise screws for both altitude and azimuth.  If you have the Sky-Watcher or iOptron base, you are used to adjusting the altitude with one large knob and the azimuth with two screws.  The WO Base is a bit different; the altitude and azimuth are both controlled with two screws.  This takes a little getting used to, but it works much better! 

I was really impressed by just how smooth the adjustments were.  Whenever I use the iOptron or Sky-Watcher bases, I’m used to everything jumping around in the polar scope, especially when I adjust the altitude.  However, the William Optics base provides smooth adjustments at all times!  This will make a precise polar alignment much easier to achieve!

When I was comparing the iOptron base with the WO base, I noticed a big difference in the azimuth screws.  The iOptron screws are much harder to get a grip on, and the range is fairly short.  Therefore, if your polar alignment wasn’t that close, you may not have enough room to turn the screws.  This happens to me quite often.  The North Star will get close to the correct position in the reticule, but not close enough.  Since the screws have reached their limit, I have to pick up the whole tripod (with everything attached!) and move it very slightly to the left or right.  Now I need to try the polar alignment again, and hope I can get the azimuth perfect.  The William Optics base makes this much easier, as the screws have more range.  If your polar alignment was a quite a ways off, you should be able to correct the azimuth without having to pick up the whole tripod.

I do have one problem with the William Optics base, and that is the limited range.  As I mentioned earlier, the base comes in two versions - High Latitude and Low Latitude.  I normally do my astrophotography between 30N and 45N.  However, I recently went down to Florida to teach an astrophotography workshop.  The latitude was 27 N.  The High Latitude Base is marked from 60 to 10, however you cannot access that full range.  Once I adjusted the altitude to 30, I reached a hard stop.  I was unable to lower the altitude any further!  Therefore, I could not do a polar alignment during the workshop!  The online specifications clearly state the range, but I had hoped you could lower the altitude a bit further.  Thankfully, one of my students mentioned that there was a workaround. 

After doing some research, I found this video.  Thanks to Orion2400, I was able to take apart the High Latitude Base, and essentially convert it into the Low-Latitude base.  Now that I could reach 27 N, I was finally able to do my polar alignment in Florida! 

One look at the William Optics Latitude Base and you can clearly see this is high-end product!  If you’ve been having trouble with your current base, this may make for a great investment.  Just keep in mind that the WO Base is noticeably larger, heavier, and bulkier than either the iOptron or Sky-Watcher bases.  It’s also not cheap, as it usually retails around $188.  The default bases for the Star Adventurer / SkyGuider Pro usually cost around $65.  Is the extra cost justified?  That really depends on your intended use.

First, remember the latitude problem I discussed earlier.  If you buy the High Latitude base and ever find yourself below 30 degrees, you will be unable to do a polar alignment.  If you have the right tools though, you can take apart the base and convert it to the low-latitude version.  This will allow you to use the High Latitude Base throughout most of the world. 

If you plan to do a lot of deep space astrophotography, the William Optics base will the polar alignment process much easier.  You can get very precise adjustments now, and you don’t have to deal with anymore flimsy plastic screws and knobs.  However, if you are just shooting with a wide-angle lens, your polar alignment doesn’t have to be perfect.  In fact, I can usually shoot 4+ minutes with a very rough polar alignment.  With that in mind, I think the William Optics base is overkill for wide angle astrophotographers, especially those hiking into their shooting locations and traveling across the globe. 

Having struggled with the poorly designed iOptron base for the past 2 years, I'm looking forward to getting my own William Optics High Latitude Base to complete my 2020 astro setup!

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) altitude altitude base astrophotography azimuth high latitude ioptron latitude base low latitude review skyguider skyguider pro skywatcher star adventurer wedge william optics Sun, 24 Nov 2019 15:03:45 GMT
William Optics Space Cat Review William Optics Space Cat Review

For the past two years I’ve done most of my deep space astrophotography with an iOptron SkyGuider Pro, Nikon D750, and a Tamron 150-600mm lens.  This combo works surprisingly well, and I like the versatility it offers.  However, I have been looking to upgrade to a real telescope for some time now.  The clear choice for me was William Optics.  They seem to make telescopes for DSLR users like myself, who want something relatively lightweight and portable. 

Earlier this year, I remember being intrigued by William Optics’ latest telescope – The RedCat!  It looked a lot like a 70-200mm lens, which I’m very familiar with, but with some nice upgrades – a built-in bahtinov mask, lightweight and compact design, versatile arca-swiss / dovetail plate, smooth focusing ring, and more!

In early 2019 William Optics released the first version of their RedCat 51 telescope.  It went on to be a very popular telescope, especially among DSLR users.    

In September 2019, William Optics introduced a new version of the RedCat with a few small improvements including – a longer dovetail plate, a better-marked focusing ring, and the tilt-adjuster built into the telescope.  William Optics also released the Space Cat and the Black Cat in September 2019.  These variants share all the same features and upgrades as the new RedCat, but with a different color scheme.  I will be reviewing the Space Cat in this article, but the RedCat will perform exactly the same!  It’s up to you to choose your preferred color.

In early October, AgenaAstro reached out and offered to send me a Space Cat telescope to review.  When the Space Cat arrived, I was really impressed by the quality of the telescope!  To start, the Space Cat comes in a beautiful padded carrying case.  I spend six months each year traveling across the country and living out of my car.  Therefore, I keep all of my camera gear in two hardcases for protection.  However, I didn’t have any room left for a telescope.  I’m glad the Space Cat comes with a practical case to keep it well protected on my adventures.


Bahtinov Mask

The Space Cat itself is beautifully designed, and every aspect has been carefully engineered.  Take for example the lens hood.  Not only is it completely reversible, reducing the packed size, it also includes a built-in bahtinov mask!

For those who are new to astrophotography, a bahtinov mask is basically a piece of plastic with a bunch of lines in it.  This creates a unique pattern when photographing the stars and helps with focusing.  Once the 3 spikes are aligned perfectly, you have a sharp image!  In fact, if you look closely at the Space Cat logo, you’ll notice the cat’s whiskers are diffraction spikes!  This careful attention to detail is present throughout the Space Cat.

For many people, focusing on the stars can be quite difficult!  Essentially, you’re trying to determine if the star is as small as possible.  For people with bad eyes, this can be incredibly hard.  The diffraction spikes make it much simpler, just verify that the middle line is actually in the middle of the other two lines, and you’re all set!

Unfortunately, my Nikon D750’s Live View is starting to show its age.  If I’m lucky, I can see one or two bright stars in Live View.  This makes it hard to see the diffractions spikes in Live View.  Once I take a short test photo though, I can clearly see the diffraction spikes.  If you have a newer Mirrorless camera, you should have a much easier experience!  The new mirrorless cameras are much more sensitive at night when using Live View.  In fact, you should be able to see the Milky Way galaxy in real time!  With this increased sensitivity, you should have no trouble focusing with the Bahtinov Mask! 


Dovetail Plate

Another great feature of the Space Cat is the dovetail plate.  Since the dovetail plate is so long, you can easily balance your camera rig by adjusting the screw locations.  This can be especially helpful if you have a very large DSLR!  Although, a battery grip may prevent the dovetail plate from sliding back.

William Optics has kept photographers in mind with the Space Cat by including an arca-swiss plate built into the dovetail!  If you’d like to attach your Space Cat to a ballhead, just unscrew the dovetail plate from the Space Cat, flip it around, and reattach it.  The arca-swiss plate will now be ready to use.  I’ve never seen another telescope even consider this feature!  Kudos to WO!


Focusing Ring

When I first saw the RedCat advertised online, I noticed that the design was very similar to a 70-200mm lens.  Not only are the size, weight and focal length similar, the focusing ring is very reminiscent of a telephoto lens.  The official term for this is a “helical focuser”, but I’ll be referring to it as the focusing ring.

When you look at the Space Cat you’ll notice there are two rings, the large ring controls the focus while the small ring controls the tension.  The focusing ring is clearly marked, with very precise markings near infinity.  These smaller markings will help you to find the correct focus for your particular telescope.  For example, the image below shows the exact location where the stars are sharp for me.  Once you learn this position, you can quickly put your focus there, then do some small tweaks to get it perfect.

The tension ring can be adjusted separately at any time to change the speed of the focusing ring.  If you plan to use this telescope to photograph birds, you can loosen the tension ring, which will allow you to focus faster on a quick moving subject.  I prefer to keep my tension ring fairly tight, so that all of my adjustments are a bit more precise.


Aperture and Star Sharpness

The Space Cat has a 51mm aperture with a focal ratio of f/4.9.  This allows a good amount of light into the telescope.  For the photographers out there, you may already have a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.  If you were to use that lens at f/2.8, you could capture almost 4 times as much light as the Space Cat.  Granted, a 70-200mm lens also costs anywhere from $500 to $2,000 more than the Space Cat!

I have a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, which I used quite a bit before the Space Cat.  I did enjoy using this lens for my astrophotography, and I want to show some comparison images between the Space Cat and the Tamron 70-200mm lens.

Here's a close crop of the upper-right corner from my William Optics Space Cat.  You'll notice a very slight amount of coma distortion.  If you were using a crop-sensor, or dedicated astro camera, you wouldn't see this part of the image circle.

This is a close crop of the center from the Space Cat.  The stars are nice and spherical, with no noticeable distortion.  The multi-colored dots are hot pixels, caused by my DSLR sensor overheating.

This image was taken with the Tamron 70-200mm G2 lens, at ~175mm.  The image has been cropped to the upper-right corner.  There's a small amount of coma distortion on the brighter stars.


Focal Length

The Space Cat is a 250mm focal length telescope.  This is considered very wide for deep space astrophotography.  However, there are some benefits to using a wider focal length at night.  One of the biggest problems that beginners have is finding objects in the night sky, especially with a tracker like the SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer.  These portable star trackers have no Go-To functionality, which means you have to manually move the telescope and find the objects yourself.  Good luck doing that with a 600mm+ telescope / lens!  The 250mm focal length of the Space Cat makes finding objects in the night sky quite a bit easier.

The image circle produced by the Space Cat is large enough to cover a full frame camera sensor.  I personally use a Nikon D750, which is a full-frame camera.  Generally, full frame cameras have larger pixels, which translates to better low-light performance.  However, there are some benefits to using a smaller sensor. 

If you have a crop-sensor camera, like a Nikon D5600 or Canon Rebel T7i, your sensor is physically smaller.  This will effectively magnify the image by 1.5 times (or 1.6 on Canon).  Therefore, the 250mm focal length of the Space Cat will look more like 375mm on a Nikon and 400mm on a Canon.

Now that I’ve photographed most of the large objects in the night sky, I do prefer a focal length of 400mm or longer.  This allows me to fill the frame with the object, which means more resolution and detail!  Looking ahead, I may get a dedicated astrophotography camera like the ZWO ASI 1600 or an APS-C camera to use specifically with the Space Cat.

If you already have a dedicated astrophotography camera, like the ZWO ASI 1600, this might be the perfect camera for the Space Cat!  The ASI 1600MM Pro has a micro four-thirds sensor (4/3” CMOS).  This small sensor will give a Field Of View similar to 500mm on a full frame camera.  (250mm x 2 = 500mm).  A 500mm focal length is ideal for many of the best objects, including: The Horsehead Nebula, Rosette Nebula, Pleiades, Triangulum, Orion, and more!

Picture saved with settings embedded.


T Mount Adapter

Like every other telescope, you will need a T-Mount adapter to connect the Space Cat to your DSLR or mirrorless camera.  The Space Cat uses a 48mm T-Mount adapter.  If this is your first telescope, be sure to pick the correct 48mm T-Mount for your camera body (Canon, Sony, Nikon, etc…)  You will not be able to use the Space Cat until you have this adapter for your camera.

The T-Mount adapter will screw onto the rear-end of the Space Cat.  Once it has been screwed on, you can attach the telescope to your DSLR like a normal lens.  Unfortunately, I had a lot of problems with the William Optics 48mm T-Mount adapter.

After securely attaching the T-Mount adapter to the Space Cat, I connected the telescope to my Nikon D750 like any other lens.  Upon doing so, I noticed that the T-Mount adapter never “clicked” into place. 

Every lens will “click” once it has been properly connected to a DSLR, and it cannot be removed until the Lens Release Button has been pressed.  However, the William Optics T-Mount adapter never fully locks into place.  This can be very dangerous.  In fact, I had placed my camera and Space Cat on the back seat, and forgotten they were there.  Once I started driving, I heard something fall.  I turned around to see the D750 had come off of the Space Cat entirely!  This would never happen with a proper connection.

After messing around with the adapter for a few weeks, I decided to contact William Optics.  After waiting a week with no reply, I tried their Facebook page.  I saw that WO had read my Facebook message, but they never replied.  I’m not sure what’s going on with their customer service, but I am not impressed.

Thankfully, has fantastic customer service!  They are the dealer who sent me the telescope and T-Mount adapter, so I also contacted them.  I receive an email reply within a few hours, and the owner sent me a replacement T-Mount Adapter the following day.  Apparently the original T-Mount had been discontinued.  I’m happy to report that the new T-Mount adapter works fine, and securely attaches to my DSLR now. 

If you find yourself having similar problems with your T-Mount adapter, I would try contacting your dealer, rather than William Optics.  They should be able to help you out and get you a replacement.


Lens Hood

The lens hood on the William Optics Space Cat can be taken off completely, or installed in reverse to save space.  This helps to cut down on the size of your Space Cat, if you need to pack it for a trip.  I’m a big fan of this versatility!  For example, let’s say it’s a bit windy outside.  That large lens hood will cause the entire setup to shake.  Once you take off the lens hood, the wind shake should be noticeably less.  Alternatively, if there’s a lot of dew, the lens hood will help prevent condensation from settling on the glass.


Filter Slot

For those who already have a telescope or dedicated astrophotography camera, the Space Cat includes a built-in thread for 2” astronomy filters which have an M48x0.75 thread.  This allows you to easily install filters to the back of the telescope.  I personally use a clip-in filter for my Nikon D750 when I’m shooting in a light polluted area.  However, I’m not a huge fan of clip-in filters, for a variety of reasons.  Now that I have the Space Cat though, I may invest in some 2” astronomy filters.  If you plan to use a monochrome astrophotography camera, this might be a great fit for you!


Field Rotator

The Space Cat also features a field rotator.  According to the official documentation, this is designed for creating mosaics.  However, I use it to change the composition and the angle of my camera.  For example, if my D750 is at a weird angle, due to the position of the object in the night sky, I can quickly adjust the Field Rotator screw and rotate my camera to a horizontal position.  If you’ve ever used a telephoto lens for deep space astrophotography before, it’s essentially the same thing as loosening the lens collar a bit and rotating the camera around.

For more advanced users, you can use the Field Rotator to create impressive mosaics.  The entire ring is clearly marked from 0 to 350 degrees to help make precise adjustments.


Shooting Experience

My first night out with the Space Cat was a lot of fun!  As I’ve mentioned earlier, I normally use a SkyGuider Pro, Nikon D750, and Tamron 70-200mm or Tamron 150-600mm lens.  I’m happy to report that using the Space Cat was very easy!  The only real problem I encountered at first was the T-Mount adapter.  As I was connecting the Space Cat to my D750, the T-Mount adapter started to unscrew itself from the telescope!  This give me a scare, and I was worried something would fall.  I was very careful to tighten everything down again, and slide the dovetail plate onto my SkyGuider Pro.

Once I had attached my Space Cat, I needed to double check my polar alignment.  If you have a SkyGuider Pro, you’ve probably gotten very tired of dealing with the flimsy plastic base.  The screws can be hard to turn, and the adjustments are never that precise.  Thankfully, sent me out a William Optics High Latitude base to review.  I was really impressed by the quality of this mount, and it made the polar alignment process noticeably easier.  If you’d like to read more about this base, be sure to check out my full review here.

After I did a precise polar alignment, with help from the William Optics High Latitude Base, I needed to get the Space Cat focused.  I unscrewed the front lens cap from the Bahtinov Mask and began focusing.  It was nice to have the diffraction spikes as a visual aid!  Within about 30 seconds I had beautiful, sharp stars and I was ready to find my object.

The 250mm focal length is great for beginners!  One of the most common problems my students face is too much zoom.  With the 250mm FOV, most objects can be found quite easily.  I ended up choosing the Pleiades as my first object.

After taking my first series of photos, I immediately noticed a problem.  There was a fairly large dust spot near the center of the frame.  As a telephoto lens user, this is something I’ve never really had to deal with before.  Usually dust spots are only visible when using f/8+, which we never use at night.  This meant I had to do some more work and create Flat Frames.

To be clear, this isn’t a problem with the telescope itself.  The dust spot was on my camera’s sensor.  However, since the rear element of the telescope is much further from the sensor than a normal lens, the dust spot appears quite large in the frame.  A telephoto lens’ rear element would be closer to the camera’s sensor, which would normally blur out most dust spots.   

Now that I know dust will be a problem with the Space Cat, I will make sure my sensor is clean before any serious shoots.  If you would like to verify your sensor is clean, it’s a fairly easy process.  First, find a blank, white wall in your house, or a clear blue sky.  Next, set the camera to Aperture Priority mode, with f/22 and a low ISO.  Now take a photo.  Any dust on your sensor should be visible if you zoom in. 

It’s actually very easy to clean a camera sensor, although it is scary the first time you do it.  I recommend using VSGO sensor swabs with a drop of the included cleaning solution.  Now lock your camera’s mirror up, this setting is usually found in the “Settings” menu.  Once the mirror is locked up, you can quickly swab the sensor a few times.  When you think you’ve gotten all the dust, turn the camera off.  Now re-attach a lens and take another test photo.  You may need to repeat this process two or three times to get a perfectly clean sensor.

Speaking of Flat Frames, the Space Cat has a small amount of vignette.  If you’re not familiar with that term, it just means how dark the corners of the photo are.  The amount of vignette is mainly determined by the lens / telescope design.  The image below has been heavily stretched to give you a clear look at the vignette. 

Keep in mind, if you are using a smaller sensor, like an APS-C or Micro 4/3rds, the Vignette will be completely absent!  That’s because you will only be capturing the center of the image area.  A Full Frame camera captures much more area, and thus the Vignette is visible.

Next, I wanted to show you how the Vignette will look with a crop-sensor camera, so I borrowed a Nikon D5600 for a night.  Once I had two photos, one from my D750 and one from the D5600, I used Photoshop to align them properly.  As you can see, the crop-sensor on the D5600 is only able to capture the center of the image circle.  In other words, the vignette is automatically cropped out!  This is another great reason to use a crop sensor with the Space Cat. 

Now that we've covered the vignette, let’s take a closer look at the stars.  This is arguably the most important aspect of a telescope after all!  The Space Cat exhibits a small amount of chromatic aberration around the stars.  Meanwhile, the coma (star distortion) is very well controlled.  If you look very closely at the edge of the frame, on a full frame camera, you’ll see that the stars aren’t completely spherical.  All things considered, the stars look great on the Space Cat, especially if you will be using a crop-sensor or dedicated astro camera!  In that case, you'll only capture the center of the image circle, which is the sharpest area.




Pairing a Camera with the Space Cat

Undersampling or oversampling is something you must always consider when purchasing a new telescope or camera.  This will depend on the focal length of your lens / telescope and the pixel size of your camera.  Thankfully, there’s an easy equation we can use:

(Pixel size (um) / focal length (mm))  x 206 = arc-seconds per pixel

My Nikon D750 has a pixel size of 5.95 um.  The focal length of the Space Cat is 250mm.  Therefore, my equation is:

(5.95um / 250mm) x 206 = 4.9 arc-seconds per pixel

Okay, so I have about 5 arc-seconds per pixel, but what does that actually mean?  Very simply, the higher the number, the worse the results.  Ideally, the arc-seconds per pixel would be between 1 - 2.  If you’re a photographer like me, this would make more sense in terms of focal length.  The more zoom we have, the larger the object will appear in the frame.  This will increase the resolution and detail that we can capture.  This is why I tend to recommend 400mm+ when shooting deep space astrophotography with a full frame DSLR.

Generally, we want to have a value of 1 – 2 arc-seconds per pixel for optimal results.  This will give clear, detailed photos with good resolution.  For example, my Tamron 150-600mm lens, when zoomed into 600mm, gives me a value of 2.  It’s no coincidence that I love using that focal length for many objects at night, especially the Orion Nebula!

With all that in mind, I may consider getting a new camera specifically for use with the Space Cat.  Since my D750 has very large pixels I tend to undersample with any given lens / telescope. 

At this point, I’ve been considering two options.  First is the Nikon D5600, which has a pixel size of 3.89um.  There’s also the ZWO ASI 1600, which is a dedicated astrophotography camera.  The 1600 has a pixel size of 3.8 um.  Let’s try the equation again and see how this will perform.

(3.8um / 250mm) x 206 = 3.1 arc seconds per pixel

This is just one more reason to use a crop-sensor or dedicated astrophotography camera with the Space Cat.  The smaller pixels essentially translate into more zoom and resolution.  Remember, the Field Of View with the Space Cat and ASI 1600 will be similar to 500mm on my full frame Nikon D750.


Final Thoughts

The Space Cat is a very well-designed telescope for folks with a DSLR and portable star tracker who want to get into astrophotography.  The Space Cat is lightweight, portable, and works perfectly with a SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer!  If you don't currently have a good lens for astrophotography, the Space Cat may be the perfect addition to your setup.  If you are using a crop sensor camera, the ~400mm equivalent focal length will work nicely for many of the brightest objects in the night sky.  However, if you have a full-frame camera, you may find yourself wishing you had a bit more zoom.  If you're a serious astrophotography, and you've already got a set of 2" filters and a dedicated astrophotography camera like the ZWO ASI 1600, then you'll love the Space Cat!



  • Compact and lightweight
  • Padded carrying case
  • Built-in Bahtinov Mask
  • Wide FOV makes finding objects easy
  • Perfect fit for a SkyGuider Pro / Star Adventurer
  • Minimal star distortion
  • Minimal vignette, especially if using a crop sensor camera
  • Great dovetail bar!
  • Can be paired with Crop-Sensor or dedicated astro camera for optimal results
  • Built-in 2" filter slot



  • Received a defective T-Mount adapter (which was later rectified by AgenaAstro, who sent me a free replacement)
  • William Optics Customer Service never responded via email or Facebook
  • 250mm is a bit wide if you are using a full frame camera
  • A telephoto lens would be more versatile 


Photo Gallery

Heart Nebula

  • 3 Minute Exposures x 40 photos (H-Alpha)
  • 3 Minute Exposures x 20 photos (Blue)
  • ASI 1600MM Pro
  • SkyGuider Pro
  • ZWO ASIAir + ZWO 120MM Mini
  • Photos taken in Kanab, Utah

Picture saved with settings embedded.



  • 4 Minute Exposures x 20 photos (Total 80 minutes)
  • ISO 800
  • Nikon D750
  • SkyGuider Pro
  • ZWO ASIAir + ZWO 120mm Mini
  • Photos taken near Lake Placid, New York (Bortle 3)


North American Nebula

  • 4 Minute Exposures x 37 photos (Total 148 minutes)
  • ISO 800
  • Nikon D750
  • SkyGuider Pro
  • ZWO ASIAir + ZWO 120mm Mini
  • Photos taken near Lisbon, Ohio (Bortle 4)


Andromeda Galaxy

  • 4 Minute Exposures x 38 photos (Total 152 minutes)
  • ISO 1600
  • Nikon D750
  • Optolong L-Pro Filter
  • SkyGuider Pro
  • ZWO ASIAir + ZWO 120mm Mini
  • Photos taken near Lisbon, Ohio (Bortle 4)
  • Image has been heavily cropped


Orion + Horsehead Nebula

  • 2 minute exposures x 61 exposures (Total 122 minutes)
  • ISO 200
  • Nikon D750
  • SkyGuider Pro
  • ZWO ASIAir + ZWO 120mm Mini Auto-guider
  • Photos taken in Kanab Utah (Bortle 2)


Rosette Nebula

  • 2 minute exposures x 51 exposures (Total 102 minutes)
  • ISO 800
  • Nikon D750
  • SkyGuider Pro
  • ZWO ASIAir + ZWO 120mm Mini Auto-guider
  • Photos taken in Kanab Utah (Bortle 2)


Rosette Nebula

  • 3 minute exposures x 10 exposures (H-Alpha)
  • 3 minute exposures x 8 exposures (Oxygen)
  • ASI 1600MM Pro
  • SkyGuider Pro
  • ZWO ASIAir + ZWO 120mm Mini Auto-guider
  • Photos taken in Kanab Utah (Bortle 2)

Picture saved with settings embedded.


Veil Nebulae

  • 1 Hour of H-Alpha and 1 Hour of Oxygen (ZWO Narrowband Filters)
  • ZWO ASI 1600MM Pro
  • SkyGuider Pro
  • ZWO ASIAir + ZWO 120mm Mini
  • Photos taken in Kanab, Utah (Bortle 2)

Picture saved with settings embedded.

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) agenaastro astrophotography ioptron latitude base red cat redcat redcat 51 redcat review replacement base review skywatcher space cat spacecat star tracker telescope wedge william optics william optics high latitude base william optics red cat review william optics space cat review Sun, 24 Nov 2019 15:03:41 GMT
MoveShootMove Star Tracker Review First Impressions

This is a very small, lightweight, and portable star tracker.  It's so portable that I can even fit it inside my pocket!  For those of you who already have a star tracker, like the Star Adventurer, you are probably tired of lugging that thing around!  The Star Adventurer itself weighs over 2lbs, and that's not including the latitude base, camera mounting block or declination bracket, etc...  The MSM Gauda can easily fit in a small backpack and be carried on long hikes or overnight trips into the backcountry.

The device itself is very straightforward.  On top, there are a number of icons which show the various tracking speeds.  There’s also a South and North option, depending on your hemisphere.  You can easily switch between the tracking speeds by clicking the button on the left.  If you want to turn on/off the tracker, just hold down the right button until the lights come on.

One of my favorite features of the MSM is that it comes with a green laser pointer, provided you choose the correct bundle (currently 'Basic Kit B').  This laser pointer will allow you to do an accurate polar alignment in seconds, without having to mess around with a polar scope! 


Configuration Options

The MSM can be configured a few different ways, but here’s how I prefer to do it.  I attach an arca-swiss plate to the bottom of the tracker.  The ¼ screw on any arca-swiss plate should screw in perfectly.  At this point I can attach the tracker to my ballhead.  However, I do need a second ballhead to attach the camera to the tracker.  I personally use a Benro IB-2 for this task, and it does a great job.  You don’t want a big and bulky ballhead here, as it will only cause problems.  You’re much better off with a small, lightweight ballhead.

You will need two ballheads for this method, but it is a very easy and fast way to setup the MSM

This brings me to my first problem with the MSM.  It comes with two 3/8” screws, which are the same size as most tripod mounts.  However, these screws will continuously rotate up into the tracker’s mount or your ballhead without stopping.  I’m not sure why there is no screw permanently attached to the tracker’s camera mount.  This is normal for every other tracker, but not here.  Just to make sure I wasn't overlooking something, I contacted MoveShootMove about this problem.  They agreed with me that it was a bad design and were looking at other alternatives.  So, as of October 2019 MSM is aware of this minor problem and seem to be designing a solution as I write this review.  Again, this isn't a deal-breaker, just a minor annoyance.  Once you get the hang of it, you shouldn't have too much trouble attaching your ballhead to the star tracker's mount.

Here you can see the 3/8" screw that you must install partially into your ballhead.  Then you can screw everything into the camera mount on the MSM tracker.

UPDATE: Less than 3 days after publishing this review, MSM released a new screw for the MSM star tracker which should work much better!  They reached out to let me know about this change, and sent some photos to show the new screw.  This will be included with all trackers from now on.  I believe this will really help with the ballhead connection.

Here you can see the new MSM screw, which has a ridge in the middle.  This should provide a secure connection between the ballhead and star tracker, and solve the problem I mentioned above

For those of you who are interested in creating timelapses, the MSM has this functionality built-in.  You have a lot of freedom with the timelapse motion, but panning horizontally is the most common.  I personally don't do many timelapses, but I wanted to test out the MSM.  For this timelapse I hiked up to a mountain overlook.  This is where the size, weight and portability of the MSM really shined!  Then I attached the MSM directly to my tripod.  From there, I attached my ballhead to the rotating camera mount on the MSM.  However, this meant that I could not see the bubble level, as it was now facing downward.  According to the manual, you should flip everything around, so that the bubble level is facing up (that would make sense!).  However, I thought it was a bit weird to have the rotating piece attached to the tripod, rather than the ballhead and my camera.  

According to the manual, I attached the MSM upside down.  However, it still worked fine in the configuration above.  The MSM is very versatile and you can use it in many different ways

Doing my timelapse during the day exposed another minor problem with the MSM tracker.  The tracker uses dim red lights to show which tracking speed you've selected and whether or not it's even turned on.  This is great for nighttime photography, since bright lights are a major annoyance!  However, during the day it's almost impossible to see which tracking speed you've selected.  I had to completely cover the tracker, so minimal light was reaching it.  I could then finally see that the tracker was turned on, and it was set to the Sidereal tracking speed.  Unless you plan to use the MSM for a lot of daytime timelapses, this really isn't a problem.

To create this timelapse video, I set the MSM to the Sidereal tracking speed.  Then I setup my Nikon D750's Intervalometer to take a photo every 10 seconds.  At that point, I let the camera and tracker run for about 2 hours, while I sat back and enjoyed the view!


Polar Alignment

The polar alignment process is the most important part of using a star tracker.  Our goal is to align the star tracker with the North Celestial Pole (or South Celestial Pole if you are in the Southern Hemisphere).  This North/South Celestial Pole is the spot where all the stars rotate around in the sky.  If you've ever done a star trails photo, you've seen this effect.  Click here for an example.  The circular effect shows exactly where the North Celestial Pole is.  Ideally, we would point our star tracker to that exact spot in the sky.  Unfortunately the NCP is just a blank spot, which makes it very difficult to find with the naked eye.  Therefore, we we normally align our star tracker to the North Star.  The North Star (Polaris), is located very close to the North Celestial Pole - hence the name.  Unlike all the other stars in the sky, the North Star does not appear to move.  (If you look closely at the star trails photo linked above, you will notice that Polaris does indeed move, but not very much.)

Once the star tracker is turned on and pointed up to Polaris, your camera will now follow the motion of the stars.  That means you can shoot much longer exposures without star trails!  The more accurate your polar alignment, the longer you can shoot with sharp stars.

With every other star tracker, polar aligning can be a major pain!  Usually you have to crane your neck and look through a small polar scope.  At best, you might see a few faint, blurry stars. At worst, you won’t see anything at all!  This can be a nightmare for beginners.  I remember it took me almost an hour to do a polar alignment my first night out with the SkyTracker Pro.  Thankfully the MSM has an ingenious design!!

The laser holder is easily clamped to the side of the MSM, then you can slide in the laser pointer and lock it down.  This is a great idea for polar aligning!

The MSM comes with a little green laser, which will help you quickly do a polar alignment  The MSM also includes a bracket you can attach to the side of the tracker.  Once attached, you can slide in the laser pointer.  Once you turn the laser on, you’ll instantly see where your tracker is pointed.  From here, you can loosen your ballhead and move the tracker around until the laser is pointed up towards Polaris.  If this sounds a bit confusing, don't worry.  It's not as complicated as it may sound.  In fact, I was able to do my first polar alignment with the MSM in less than 10 seconds!

Once the laser pointer is attached and turned on, you can adjust your ballhead so that the laser is pointed directly at Polaris

If you aren’t sure how to find Polaris, it’s actually very simple.  First, find the Big Dipper in the northern sky.  Now, take the corner star and draw a straight line out.  This will always take you to Polaris.  Once the laser is centered on the North Star, you’re done!  This shouldn’t take more than 20 seconds once you know what to look for.  I really love this method of polar aligning.  I may start incorporating this laser with my other trackers as well.  As an astrophotography instructor, you’d think I would’ve purchased a green laser years ago.  In fact, this was the first laser pointer I got, so thank you MSM!!

Finding Polaris is very simple!  Just look for the Big Dipper and draw a line out from the corner star, it will always take you to the North Star!


How well does it work?

On my first night out with the MSM I was able to get a precise polar alignment in less than 10 seconds!  This was all thanks to the laser pointer, no polar scope required!  Once I did my quick polar alignment, I attached my Nikon D750 and Nikon 14-24mm lens.  That's a lot of weight to put on a small star tracker.  Usually trackers of this size are limited to about 3 lbs, at least that's the max weight the manual recommends.  Therefore, I was a bit skeptical that the MSM could handle my heavy camera, lens, and ballhead (total weight was ~6 lbs).

Once I had all of my camera settings dialed in - ISO 800, 5 minutes, f/2.8, I took a test photo.  After the 5 minute exposure was finished I zoomed into the image playback.  To my surprise, the stars were tack sharp!  A 5 minute exposure at 14mm is great! 

Here's the 5 minute exposure with my 14mm lens and MSM.  You'll notice the foreground blurred out, but the stars are sharp.  This is the trick with star trackers - you always need to take 2 photos - one for a sharp foreground (no tracker), and one for sharp stars (tracker).  Once you have both images you can blend them together in Photoshop.

My SkyGuider Pro, which costs twice as much as the MSM, can do 5 minute exposures as well.  However, the polar alignment process is much more difficult because you have to use the built-in polar scope.  Instead of doing a polar alignment in 10 seconds or less, it may take you 10+ minutes!  I also tend to use a declination bracket and counterweights, to help balance my heavy camera and lens.  In other words, using the SkyGuider Pro is much more involved, and it requires me to carry around a lot of heavy gear.  

After the success of the first test, I swapped out my 14-24mm lens for my Tamron 24-70mm G2.  I zoomed into 70mm and took another test photo.  This time I used a 2 minute shutter speed.  Again, I was surprised to see sharp stars!  When I used my SkyTracker Pro, I was lucky to get 60 second exposures at 100mm.  This was mainly because the polar alignment was hard to do with the polar scope, especially if you have bad eyes. 

All things considered, the MSM star tracker did a fantastic job with the tracking!  As I previously mentioned, I was very skeptical that the MSM could shoot longer than 2 or 3 minutes at 14mm and still have sharp stars.  I'm happy to report that I was completely wrong!  The MSM's tracking capabilities are on par with the big star trackers that cost over $400.

There is one downside to the MSM - the battery.  According to the website, the MSM battery is only rated for 5 hours.  That's fairly short for a star tracker.  For example, my SkyGuider Pro can easily shoot 20 hours with its rechargeable lithium-ion battery.  I normally spend 5+ months each year traveling across the country and living out of my car.  One of the main annoyances with this lifestyle are batteries!  Every day I'm charging DSLR batteries, phone batteries, portable batteries, star tracker batteries, laptop batteries, etc...  Therefore, I'm not thrilled to have another battery to worry about, especially if it will only last 5 hours of shooting (possibly less on a cold winter night).  With all that said, I do still prefer an internal battery over AA or AAA batteries.  Those are a money pit...  Provided you remember to charge your MSM before you head out for the night, you shouldn't have any problems.  However, I'm sure that sooner or later I will forget and find myself out of luck!


Final Word

Having used most of the star trackers on the market, I can confidently say the MSM is a fantastic option!  I would easily recommend it to anyone who wants to start taking better astro photos at night.  If you've never used a star tracker before, they really do help immensely.  The main problem we face at night is simply a lack of light.  15 - 30 second exposures will never capture enough light for a clean, detailed photo.  That's why so many astro images are grainy and ugly.  With a star tracker though, you can easily capture 4+ minute exposures with a wide angle lens.  If you do the math, a 4 minute exposure is capturing 16 times more light than a 15 second exposure!  This extra light is what allows me to capture the stunning colors and detail in my astro photos.  My biggest regret as an astrophotographer is not buying a star tracker sooner!

The MSM is by far the smallest, lightest, and most portable star tracker on the market.  The Star Adventure Mini is a close second, and that tracker does have more features with its companion app.  However, the SAM needs to be connected to that App (and your smartphone) to function, as it has no physical buttons.  Therefore, I personally don't like using the Star Adventurer Mini.

The only real problem I have with the MSM tracker is the battery life.  According to the website and manual, the MSM tracker battery will only last for 5 hours.  You can recharge it at any time with the included USB-C cable.  However, if you plan to take the MSM on a multi-night backpacking trip, you'll also need a portable battery charger, so keep that in mind.  For everyone else, you'll want to make sure you charge the MSM before heading out for the night.

If you want to do more deep space work, then I would recommend going for something like the SkyGuider Pro instead.  It can easily handle a 150-600mm lens or telescope.  The MSM is really designed for wide angle astrophotography, up to about 100mm.  With that in mind, I will be bringing the MSM on all of my night hikes from now on!  It's so small and light, I don't mind carrying it for a couple miles.  In the past, I would either leave the SkyGuider Pro behind, or dread having to lug it around. 

Probably my favorite part of the MSM is the laser pointer!  This really does revolutionize the polar alignment experience.  If you've never used a polar scope yet, you'll probably hate it.  I've had many students get very frustrated with their star tracker's polar scope.  At best, they might see a few blurry stars, and they aren't sure which is the North Star.  This makes things very difficult at night.  If you don't do an accurate polar alignment, you won't be able to shoot long exposures.  Therefore, a laser pointer will drastically speed up your polar alignment process and save you a lot of frustration!  For this reason alone, I recommend the MSM for both beginners and those who already have a star tracker. 

Apparently laser pointers are illegal in some countries, and heavily regulated in others.  This is mainly due to dumb people shining lasers at airplanes, and blinding the pilots.  If you do use a laser pointer at night, be sure to minimize your usage.  Also, keep an eye out for airplanes and turn off the laser if one flies near Polaris while you are doing a polar alignment.  If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, a laser pointer won't help much with a polar alignment due to the lack of a bright pole star.  Therefore, you'll want to get a polar scope instead and you'll have to really practice your polar alignment skills.  We have things much easier here in the Northern Hemisphere!

In closing, I must say I was really impressed by this tracker.  Due to the small size of the MSM, I honestly was not expecting much.  I figured the tracker would max out at about 2 minutes at 14mm.  I was clearly wrong!  The MSM tracker easily achieved sharp stars at 5 minutes with my 14-24mm lens, and 2 minutes at 70mm.  When you combine that tracking accuracy with the easy polar alignment process, it's clear that the MoveShootMove is a fantastic star tracker!

Finally, if you decide to buy the MSM, be sure to get the "Basic Kit B", which includes the laser pointer.  They do have other bundles available, but I think the Basic Kit B is the best option for most people, unless you'd like to get the additional accessories. 

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astrophotography gauda move shoot move moveshootmove nikon photography review sifo SkyGuider Pro skytracker skytracker pro Star Adventurer Star Adventurer Mini star tracker timelapse Mon, 07 Oct 2019 14:56:32 GMT
Light Pollution Filters for Astrophotography

Quick Recap - Electromagnetic Spectrum

Before we begin, I wanted to make sure we are all on the same page.  The electromagnetic spectrum is a large range of wavelengths, including Ultra-Violet, Infrared, Visible Light, X-Ray, and more!  Our eyes and cameras are only capable of detecting a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  This narrow range is known as 'Visible Light', and includes all the colors of the rainbow, from Violet to Red.  Colors are measured in nanometers, ranging from about 400nm to 700nm.  This information will be important later on, once we begin looking at the actual astrophotography filters!  For more information on the Electromagnetic Spectrum, click here.

As you might already know, most photography relies on three colors – Red, Green, and Blue.  Blue light is generally from 400nm – 500nm, Green light ranges from 500-600nm, and Red light from 600-700nm.  Therefore, our camera sensors are designed to detect light ranging from about 400nm to 700nm.  Our eyes are also capable of seeing light from about 400nm – 700nm. 

The objects we photograph in the night sky tend to emit a few common wavelengths.  These include Hydrogen Alpha (656nm), Oxygen (501nm), and Sulfur (672nm).  These specific wavelengths contain a lot of valuable information and detail.  Click here for more information

Many astrophotographers have special filters that allow them to only capture very precise wavelengths, like H-Alpha.  These “narrowband filters” are great for astrophotography, especially in light polluted areas!  You can capture NASA quality photos, even in the middle of a city!  How? 

Sodium-Vapor lamps, the most common source of light pollution, have a wavelength of 589nm.  Now, if we are just taking a normal photo with a DSLR camera, we are capturing light ranging from about ~400nm to ~700nm.  Therefore, the light from Sodium Vapor lamps is visible in our photos.  However, a narrowband filter blocks out all wavelengths, except for a small range.  For example, only light waves near 656nm will be visible with an H-Alpha narrowband filter.  The 589nm sodium-vapor light will be completely blocked.  Click here to see how an H-Alpha filter will limit the light reaching your camera's sensor.  As you can see, only the limited range around H-Alpha will be visible, every other wavelength of light will be blocked.

Therefore, you could buy H-Alpha, Oxygen, and Sulfur narrowband filters and capture stunning astro images from the city!  You will need to do some special post-processing to turn these images into a great color photo.  However, for backyard astrophotographers stuck in the city, this is amazing!  Who would’ve thought that someone living in LA could get Hubble quality images from their backyard!  That’s the power of narrowband filters.  For more information on narrowband filters, check out Chuck's Astrophotography on YouTube.

To be clear, narrowband filters are not necessarily recommended for DSLRs.  You will want a monochrome CCD-style camera and telescope for this method.  I'll explain this more in a future article.

Picture saved with settings embedded. Rho Ophiuchi as seen from Canyonlands National Park.  The dark skies here allow for amazing images, no filters required! 

*Taken with a stock Nikon D750, Tamron 70-200mm G2, and SkyGuider Pro


Light Pollution Filters

Light Pollution filters are very popular in the astro community right now.  They are designed to block out the wavelengths of light emitted by Sodium Vapor Lamps, the main cause of light pollution.  Now you can now take amazing astro images, even in light polluted areas!  Well, not quite.

First, not all of the light pollution is from Sodium Vapor lamps.  White light from LEDs is becoming more and more common.  While these new LED lights may reduce that ugly yellow/orange glow from cities, they are still producing light pollution.  Since it is white or blue light, it’s also much more difficult to block with a filter.  Therefore, you may still see a lot of light pollution in your images.  Ultimately, the goal of a filter is to block out specific light pollution wavelengths, while preserving light emitted by nebula and galaxies.

There are various types of light pollution filters to choose from.  Some can be screwed to the front of your lens, slid into a filter holder, or clipped inside the camera itself.  There are also filters that require a telescope to be installed.  There are a few companies that are specifically focused on astrophotographers with telescopes, including Astronomik (German company), Optolong (Chinese company), and SkyTech.  These filters usually do a good job.  

Light pollution creates two main problems for astrophotography.  First, the extra light effectively washes out the sky, lowering contrast and obscuring the faint details of nebula and galaxies.  It also usually adds a heavy red / yellow / orange color cast to your images.  If you've purchased my Star Tracker Course, Astrophotography Post-Processing Course, or Deep Space Course, then you already know how to remove the color casts caused by light pollution in Photoshop!  Using a series of Curves adjustment layers, we can pretty easily remove any color cast from a photo.  The image below shows a bad color cast caused by a CCD camera sensor, not light pollution.  However, I think this is a great example of how you can salvage an image once you understand photo editing.



I removed this color cast using a few Curves adjustments in Photoshop!  Check out my Deep Space Course to learn more. 

Special thanks to Rodney for providing this image of the Carina Nebula!




My Experience with the Optolong L-Pro and UHC Filters

While I was traveling through California, I stopped by Orange County Telescope.  I met with the owner, Mike, and had a great talk about star trackers, filters, telescopes, CCD cameras, and more!  Mike and Kenny really know there stuff when it comes to astrophotography and telescopes.  If you need any new gear, or have questions, definitely give them a call!  While I was there, Mike generously provided me with two of the Optolong filters – the L-Pro and UHC.  These are clip-in style filters, which allow you to use them with all of your lenses.  The clip-in filters sit inside the camera, where the mirror usually is.  It can certainly be scary to install them your first time, but it's really easy after that.  Watch how to install a clip-in filter here.

The UHC filter is designed to block a lot of light, mainly greens/yellows/oranges, while allowing the main nebulae wavelengths through.  As you can see from this graph, only blue and red light is allowed through.  (Here’s a graph that shows how the wavelengths and colors relate, if you forgot.)  With these graphs in mind, the UHC filter is clearly designed for photographing nebula.  If you are photographing from your backyard, in the city or suburbs, this filter should cut out any light pollution.  However, due to the heavy light reduction, I would only recommend this filter for deep space use with your telephoto lens or telescope.  Click here to see how weird the colors will look with the UHC filter.  As you can see, the colors get pretty wacky.  The comparison image below shows a comparison with and without the UHC filter.


No Filter
UHC Filter

UHC Filter

f/2.8, ISO 100, 15 Seconds - Nikon D750 with Nikon 14-24mm  @14mm  (Daylight WB, RAWs)


The L-Pro filter is much more precise in its light pollution removal.  As you can see from this graph, it directly targets the main light pollution wavelengths.  The L-Pro filter has been designed to remove airglow and mercury / sodium vapor lamps, while retaining the normal colors.  The comparison images below clearly show the difference.  


No Filter
L-Pro Filter

L-Pro Filter

f/2.8, ISO 100, 15 Seconds - Nikon D750 with Nikon 14-24mm  @14mm (Daylight WB, RAWs)


While the wide-angle shots look pretty good, I did notice some problems upon closer inspection.  Namely, the stars are very deformed in the corners.  In fact, as soon as you leave the center of the frame, there are serious problems with the light focusing.  This appears to be a consistent problem with both the UHC and L-Pro filters.  You can download the RAW photos here for a closer look.

However, there's an important consideration here.  These filters are mainly designed for photographing deep space objects, not wide angle nightscapes.  All of the sample images so far were taken with a Nikon 14-24mm lens on a Nikon D750.  Therefore, it's possible this focusing problem will only be visible with extreme wide angle lenses.  My next tests were using a Tamron 70-200mmG2 and SkyGuider Pro for some deep space astrophotography.


Test 1 - North American Nebula

Before we begin, you can download the RAW files for this test here.  As expected, the filters perform much better with a telephoto lens!  No more odd light distortion or focusing problems!  I took these comparison images from the library parking lot in Stevenson, Washington.  The North American Nebula was my target, and at this time of year it was directly overhead, which should be the darkest part of the sky.  The comparisons below are RAW photos, with no editing applied.  Both images had the exact same camera settings.  The L-Pro filter clearly darkens the image and also adds a slight blue color cast.


No Filter
L-Pro Filter

L-Pro Filter

f/2.8, ISO 400, 5 Minute Exposure - Daylight WB (RAW photos)


Next up is the UHC Filter.  It is drastically darkening the photo, as well as adding a purple color cast.  This is to be expected though.  Remember, it's only allowing red and blue light through.  Therefore all of the images taken with the UHC will be noticeably darker, with a significant color cast.  This might seem pretty bad, especially with these RAW photos.  However, I think you'll be surprised once we edit the images!


No Filter
UHC Filter

UHC Filter

f/2.8, ISO 400, 5 Minute Exposure - Daylight WB (RAW photos)


I'll admit, I was very surprised just how good the Light Pollution filter images looked after a bit of editing!  I used Adobe Camera RAW to increase the Exposure, increase the saturation a bit, add some contrast, remove the vignette, and fix the color balance.  This is still minimal editing though, normally I spend at least 20 minutes messing around with Curves in Photoshop.  Therefore, these photo comparisons show how the images look with just a few minutes of easy editing.  The difference is remarkable!  


No Filter
L-Pro Filter

L-Pro Filter

f/2.8, ISO 400, 5 Minute Exposure - Basic edits in Camera RAW


Pretty impressive right?  Well, the UHC filter did even better!  It really made the North American Nebula stand out from the sky.  Not only is it removing the light pollution, it also helps to remove any other light / colors that might distract from the nebula.  The UHC filter isn't perfect though.  That heavy blue color cast will take some time to remove in Photoshop.  If you don't know how to use Curves, it will likely be a pain to get a good image.  I'd recommend checking out my Deep Space Course if you want to learn more about editing.


No Filter
UHC Filter

UHC Filter

f/2.8, ISO 400, 5 Minutes - Basic Camera RAW Edits



Test 2 - Dark Sky Location

Now that you've seen what's possible in moderate light pollution, let's see how the filters perform under a dark sky.  For this next series of tests I journeyed out to the Alabama Hills, a dark sky region in the Eastern Sierras.  Click here to download the RAW files for a closer look.

First up is the L-Pro filter.  I was a bit surprised by the heavy color cast.  I would've thought the colors would look a bit better.  I suppose the filter is designed to filter out light pollution, so there's not much reason to use it at a dark sky location.


No Filter
L-Pro Filter

L-Pro Filter

f/2.8, ISO 6400, 15 Seconds - RAW Photos, all settings (including White Balance) were identical


Next we have the UHC filter.  As expected, it drastically darkened the scene, and added a unique blue/red color cast.  Now we are starting to see the downsides of using the UHC filter.  Since it blocks so much light, you will have grainier photos.  If you have a star tracker this isn't a problem, just take more photos!  However, if you plan to head out and shoot 15 -30 second exposures without a tracker, you are in for a lot of problems.


No Filter
UHC Filter

UHC Filter

f/2.8, ISO 6400, 15 Seconds - RAW Photos, all settings (including White Balance) were identical


If you'd like to see the edited versions of these photos, click here for L-Pro and click here for UHC.  This should give you a good idea of how the images will look after a bit of editing.  Keep in mind, both filters are blocking light.  Therefore, the filtered photos will have more grain and color mottling.  The best way around this is to capture more light, ideally with a star trackerAgain, I generally recommend using these filters for deep space astrophotography, not wide-angle nightscapes.  



Test 3 - Lagoon Nebula

This last round was taken in a moderately light-polluted area - Port Angeles, Washington.  This should give everyone a realistic idea of how the filters will work from most shooting locations around the world, where there is some light pollution.  Click here to download the RAW files.

For these tests, I shot from the library parking lot.  Unfortunately, a tree got in the way during the exposure.  However, we can still see how the filter worked, just try to ignore the giant orange blob streaking across the photo.  To be clear, these photos have been edited extensively in Camera RAW and Photoshop in an attempt to bring out the nebula and remove any color cast.  You can see the RAW images here.


No Filter
L-Pro Filter

L-Pro Filter

f/6, ISO 200, 5 Minutes - Extensive Edits in Camera RAW and Photoshop


Next up is the UHC Filter.  I was actually really surprised by how well it performed here!  I could clearly see the Lagoon Nebula much better on the camera's display.  Once I began looking at the photos on the computer, the differences became even more profound.  As you can see, the Lagoon Nebula stands out much better with the UHC filter.  In fact, you can even make out the faint part of the nebula extending out to the left. 

While the nebula stands out much better, it's still not perfect.  As before, there's a noticeable blue color cast to the photo.  After I tried to remove it in Photoshop, using Curves Adjustments, a red color cast became visible in the corners of the photo.  This was a pain to deal with in editing.  It's possible if you use PixInsight, or a different editing workflow, this will not be a problem for you.  Here's a link to my edited version


No Filter
UHC Filter

UHC Filter

f/6, ISO 200, 5 minutes - RAW Photos with 'Exposure' increase  (Daylight WB for both)



Final Thoughts

Before we go any further, you can download all of the RAW files here.  This will give you a clear look at how these filters perform.  Alternatively, you can view the L-Pro jpegs here and the UHC jpegs here.

I'll be honest, I thought light pollution filters were a gimmick.  After doing these tests though, I can confidently say that a good light pollution filter can really make a difference!  The nebulae look so much better when using either the L-Pro or UHC filters!  As we saw though, they aren't perfect.  I do not recommend using these light pollution filters for wide angle images, due to the deformed stars.  Also, the filters will introduce a color cast of their own.  The L-Pro is negligible, and can be removed easily.  However, the UHC filter will require extensive knowledge of Curves to remove the blue color cast. 
Again, I'd recommend my Deep Space Course which will teach you everything you need to know about that

Ultimately, the best thing you can do for your astrophotography is travel to a dark sky location.  Once you are shooting in a dark sky, things will be much easier for you.  Not only will the galaxies and nebulae stand out better, you'll have a much easier time editing your photos.  I usually spend 6 months living on the road each year.  This gives me a unique opportunity to travel to the best dark sky locations in America during each New Moon.  Therefore, I really don't have much need for light pollution filters.  However, I usually spend my winters in Ohio, where we have a fair amount of light pollution.  I'm looking forward to using both the L-Pro and UHC filters when I return home this winter!

I know many people are backyard astrophotographers though, and you will always be dealing with some light pollution.  For you, I'd highly recommend getting a light-pollution filter.  Not only will this make the nebulae stand out better, it will remove some of that annoying yellow/orange color cast from your images. 

Lastly, I do have a special discount available if you plan to purchase these filters!  You'll find the UHC Filter here, and you can purchase the L-Pro Filter here.  Be sure to click the "More Payment Options" button.  From there, you can enter the coupon code: WorkshopStudent to save 5% on your order.  FYI, these are affiliate links.  If you've enjoyed this comparison, you can show your support by ordering and using the coupon code.

Please be aware, these are clip-in filters!  Therefore, your camera may not be supported.  The graphs over on Astronomik should be the same for Optolong, but I always recommend double checking before you buy - Canon Full Frame, Canon Crop Sensor, Nikon Full Frame.  I used a Nikon D750 for these tests and it worked fine with my camera.  Click here to watch how I install my clip-in filters.

That's all I have for you today!  I hope this article gave you a good idea of how the different light pollution filters will work, and if it's worth investing in!  If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment and I'll try to answer them!

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astronomik astrophotography backyard astrophotography deep space filter ioptron lagoon nebula light pollution light pollution filters l-pro milky way north american nebula optolong skyguider pro star tracker uhc Mon, 05 Aug 2019 20:37:35 GMT
Auto-Guiding with the SkyGuider Pro


What is an Auto-Guider?

Last Updated: April 26, 2020

An auto-guider is a small camera that sends commands to your star tracker, drastically increasing the tracking accuracy!

In order to use the auto-guider, you'll also need a guide scope.  This guide scope is just a small lens that allows the auto-guider camera to see the stars.  Once you have an auto-guider and guide scope, a USB cable will connect the auto-guider to your laptop.  You'll also use an ST4 cable to connect the auto-guider to your star tracker. 

In order to actual do the 'auto-guiding', you'll need a free application - PHD2.  This program has two main functions.  First, it will find a guide star and lock on.  After a guide star has been selected, PHD2 can send commands to your star tracker, which should keep the guide star centered in the crosshairs.  Now that PHD2 is sending commands to your star tracker, it should perform much better!  If you are shooting at 200mm+, you'll likely notice a massive change in tracking accuracy! 

This photo shows my old hotshoe mount, which I no longer use due to stability problems.  I now use an arca-swiss clamp to connect the guide scope directly to my D750's L-Bracket 


Choosing an Auto-Guider

You have a lot of options when choosing an auto-guider, including the ZWO ASI 120MM S, Lodestar X2, and the QHY5L - II.  Depending on which auto-guider you get, you may also need to purchase a guide scope.  This is a tiny lens that allows the auto-guider to see the stars.  

Once you have an auto-guider and guide scope, you need to mount everything to your camera / star tracker.  If you have the Star Adventurer, I recommend checking out this video for installation options.  If you have an L-Bracket attached to your DSLR, you have another way to mount your auto-guider and guide scope.  Simply buy a quick release clamp like this (there's a bunch of other similar options that will work too).  You can screw this into the base of your guide scope, then clamp the whole thing to the side of your L-Bracket.  This will give you a much sturdier connection, with no wobble!  Plus, it will lower the center of gravity.  The only caution here is that some of your camera ports may be blocked.  Thankfully, I'm still able to plug in my external remote when the clamp is attached.  I want to thank 2 of my students - Mahn and Phil, who let me know about this wonderful idea!  

Personally, I bought the ZWO ASI 120MM Mini auto-guider with the ZWO 30mm f/4 Guide Scope.  This combo works great, and is fairly cheap!  However, you may have compatibility issues with the ASI 120MM Mini camera, due to the USB 2.0 interface.  Therefore, you may want to consider the ZWO ASI 120MM S version instead.  It has USB 3.0 and is reportedly much more stable, especially with newer laptops.  

There are also similar cameras to the ones linked above, but they might have the letters 'MC' in their name.  For example, the ASI 120MC-S.  This camera has a color sensor, as indicated by the "MC" marking.  Color cameras aren't as sensitive to light, and I'd recommend buying a monochrome camera - like the ASI 120MM Mini instead.

Here you can see my new guide scope mount.  I use an arca-swiss clamp to connect the guide scope directly to the L-Bracket on my D750.  This provides a very stable, secure connection



The Guiding Process

Before you begin guiding, you'll need to download the appropriate drivers for your auto-guider.  First, you need the Native Drivers for your auto-guider camera.  Here's a link to ZWO's software page, and here's a link to QHY's page.  It's always best to search for your specific camera model though, and be sure to get the correct Native (System) Drivers.  This will depend on which brand you bought, but it's a pretty simple process to get everything running.  After your drivers are installed, you can now plug the auto-guider into your laptop.

Believe it or not, the actual auto-guiding process is very simple.  Once your auto-guider is connected to the laptop via USB, and to the star tracker via ST4, you are ready to go!  You'll need PHD2 installed on your laptop for the guiding.  PHD2 is a great, free application that makes the guiding process very simple.  Once PHD2 is running, there's really only 5 steps to follow.

  1. Connect your equipment
    1. Click the USB icon at the bottom
    2. Then click the "Connect" buttons for your equipment
  2. Begin 'Looping' Exposures
    • Adjust your 'Exposure' and 'Gamma' as needed
    • If you don't see any stars, it's possible your guide-scope needs focused
  3. Click on any star to select it
    1. Don't always click the brightest star, it won't help the tracking
    2. If you're not sure, use Auto-Select (Alt S) and PHD2 will automatically pick a good star for you
  4. Click the Begin Guiding button
    1. PHD2 will now calibrate on the star
    2. You should see yellow dotted lines
    3. The calibration should take ~2 minutes to complete
    4. Once it finishes, the yellow lines will turn green and the guiding will begin!


That's all there is to it!  Once the initial calibration phase has finished, you'll notice the yellow lines turn green.  At this point, PHD2 is sending guiding commands to your star tracker.  It should help to correct any errors with your tracker, and allow you to shoot much longer exposures at 100mm+.

You can certainly get more advanced with PHD2, by adjusting various algorithms, but it's really not necessary.  It is called Push Here Dummy for a reason!  After you use PHD2 two or three times, you should be more than comfortable with the interface.  The image below shows the main PHD2 screen.  The graph is the most important part.  It shows how well your star tracker is performing.  Ideally, the blue 'RA' line would be nearly flat, along the 0 line.  However, even if the RA line oscillates between +6" and -6", you should still get good results!  There's a lot more complexity to this, which I cover in my Auto-Guider Course.




The ZWO ASIAir allows you to guide your star tracker from your smartphone, no laptop required!  I purchased my original ASIAir in September, and found that it makes my night a lot easier!  I no longer have to bring my old laptop out into the field, along with my big Jackery battery.  The ASIAir itself is not much bigger than a cell phone, and can be powered from a small battery charger.  I use this RAVPower battery, and it can easily power the ASIAir for multiple nights.  This makes it the perfect companion of a SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer.  The most important aspect of the ASIAir is that you can now do everything from your smartphone!

Unfortunately, ZWO has discontinued the original version of the ASIAir.  I really liked this model because it could be powered from a USB cable and small battery.  They now make the ASIAir Pro, which has some noticeable improvements and drawbacks.

The new ZWO ASIAir Pro is more designed for astrophotographers with dedicated astro cameras and go-to mounts.  The ASIAir Pro has 4 DC power ports, which can be used to power a variety of astro accessories.  The ASIAir Pro also has a more robust design, which is a welcome improvement over the original.  My only problem with the ASIAir Pro is that it requires a 12V power connection now, which means I need to lug around my big Jackery battery whenever I use it.  

The ASIAir app is pretty straightforward, although it did take me a few hours to get used to the interface.  Once you know how to use the ASIAir, you'll be able to quickly do a precise polar alignment and start guiding.  I recommend watching my tutorial below for more information.

If you're thinking about getting an auto-guider, I'd highly recommend the ZWO ASIAir as well!  



How Well Does it Work?

I was honestly very surprised how well the auto-guiding worked!  In the past, I was usually limited to ~30 second exposures when shooting with my Tamron 150-600mm lens.  Now that I am using an auto-guider, I can easily shoot 4+ minute exposures at 600mm!!  This is a huge boost in light gathering capabilities!  The extra light should allow you to capture more detail and color in your nebulae, with noticeably less grain!  Since you are taking much longer exposures, you will also have less images to deal with.  Instead of stacking 100+ images, you probably only need 10 - 40 images, in most cases.  That means more harddrive space, and less processing power required.

The comparison below shows two 5 minute exposures, one with the auto-guider connected, and one without an auto-guider.  As you can see, there's a massive increase in tracking accuracy once an auto-guider is attached!



Here's an image of the Veil Nebulae, which I captured with the help of my auto-guider.  I took about 11 images, each 3 minutes long.  Being able to shoot longer exposures helped to reveal the faint details that would have otherwise been hidden and obstructed by the camera's noise!

Picture saved with settings embedded.


Final Thoughts

If you are using a SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer, an auto-guider is an easy way to increase the accuracy of your star tracker!  Having struggled with 30 second exposures in the past, it was so nice to be able to shoot 4+ minute exposures!

There are some downsides to consider though.  First, you will need to bring a laptop with you from now on.  Since my laptop has terrible battery life, I also need an external battery to keep things running all night.  With all these wires dangling around in the dark, it's possible that someone may trip on one!  All things considered, you may decide that auto-guiding is not worth the hassle.  Since I do all of my deep space astrophotography right next to my car, I don't really mind.

You can also use the ZWO ASIAir Pro now.  This little device will allow you to do a precise polar alignment as well as guiding all from your smartphone, no laptop required!  It is compatible with both the SkyGuider Pro and Star Adventurer.   I personally recommend using the ASIAir for both your polar alignment and auto-guiding.  If you purchase my Deep Space Course or Star Tracker Tutorials, I will teach you everything you need to know about using the ASIAir with your SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer.

While the basics of auto-guiding are pretty simple, there's still a lot more to learn!  I recently created a two hour Auto-Guider Course, which is included with my Star Tracker Tutorials and my Deep Space Course

For more information on Auto-Guiding, check out my new tutorial video below.  This should answer most of the questions you may have.  If you want to learn even more about auto-guiders, and your star tracker, be sure to check out my Deep Space Course.  It has over 15 hours of tutorial videos!  This course has been specifically designed for DSLR users who have a SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer.

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) auto guiding with skyguider pro auto guiding with star adventurer auto-guider auto-guiding ioptron qhy skyguider pro skywatcher star adventurer star tracker zwo zwo asi 120mm Wed, 03 Apr 2019 15:05:50 GMT
Which Star Tracker Should I Get? Which Star Tracker Should I Get?

Last Updated: May 19, 2021

If you are looking to buy your first star tracker, or maybe upgrade your existing one, you have a lot of options!  These include the iOptron SkyTracker Pro, iOptron SkyGuider Pro, Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini, Vixen Polarie, and MoveShootMove.  All of these star trackers are designed for photographers getting into astrophotography, however each model has some distinct benefits.  In this review, we will look at all of the star trackers and see which one works best for your own personal needs.

If you already have a star tracker, but don't know how to use it effectively, you can check out my full-length Star Tracker Tutorials, which will teach you everything you need to know!

A Star Tracker beneath the Milky WayA Star Tracker allows you to capture much higher quality nightscapes


Before I begin, I just want to clear up the naming of these star trackers, as it can get very confusing.  iOptron makes the SkyTracker Pro and SkyGuider Pro.  Sky-Watcher makes the Star Adventurer and Star Adventurer Mini (also known as the SAM).  These 4 star trackers can be broken into two categories - lightweight and heavy duty.

The iOptron SkyTracker Pro and the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini are the 'lightweight' models.  They both have nearly the same specs and will work great with lightweight camera setups (4 lbs or less usually).  The MoveShootMove star tracker is another lightweight model, and is easily the most compact star tracker on the market.

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro and the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer are the 'heavy duty' models.  They both have nearly the same specs and can handle a heavy camera with a telephoto lens (up to 11 lbs).  These are both great options for more advanced users with full-frame cameras.

iOptron also makes an iPolar version of the SkyGuider Pro.  This model does not have a polar scope, and it requires you to use a laptop in the field to do the polar alignment.  If you plan to do Milky Way photography, this will be a major hassle!  You'd need to lug a laptop around on your hikes with you.  Therefore, I personally don't recommend buying the iPolar version.  I would argue the original SkyGuider Pro is a better option for most people.

I recorded a video back in October 2019 which covers the main points of this article.  It may help to watch the video first, since this post is quite dense and wordy.



Weight Limits

The first thing you need to determine is the weight of your camera gear.  This is ultimately going to be the biggest factor in your star tracker decision, as each model can only handle a certain amount of weight.  If your camera gear exceeds the weight limit of the tracker, you will not get good results.  So, measure each piece of gear that you have, (and plan to use at night) and find the total weight.

Nikon D750 - 1.7 lbs

Kirk L Bracket - 0.27 lbs

Acratech GP Ballhead - 1 lb

Tokina 100mm - 1.2 lbs

Nikon 14-24mm - 2.18 lbs

Tamron 70-200mm G2 - 3.28 lbs

Tamron 150-600mm - 4.3 lbs


That means my usual setup is between 5lbs and 8 lbs.  Once you've determined the total weight of your setup, you can look at the different star tracker weight limits.  Let's start from weakest to strongest. 


iOptron SkyTracker Pro - 2.6 lbs  (or 6.6. lbs with optional counterweight kit)

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini - 6.6 lbs

MoveShootMove - 6.6 lbs

Vixen Polarie - 7 lbs

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer - 11 lbs

iOptron SkyGuider Pro - 11 lbs  


I want to be very clear here, you don't want to actually use the weight limits listed.  In fact, most astrophotographers recommend using 1/2 the weight limit.  If you put too much weight on any star tracker, it will likely have problems tracking.  There's a little motor inside each tracker, which ultimately moves your camera with the speed of the stars.  If you have too much weight on the star tracker, that motor is going be put under a lot of stress.  This will prevent you from shooting long exposures (4+ minutes), and you may eventually fry the motor completely.

Try to keep your total camera rig below 6 or 7 lbs with the SkyGuider Pro and Star Adventurer.  You could go above this, but it's generally not recommended.  Plus, you'll probably need a second counterweight or rod extension to actually balance your setup.

In order to get the full payload limit as advertised for each star tracker, you will need to balance the star tracker's counterweight system properly.  For example, the iOptron SkyGuider Pro can be used with its standard camera mount, for rigs up to 3 lbs.  However, in order to get the full 11 lb limit, you'll need to attach the included Declination Bracket and balance the counterweight.  We'll cover the counterweights more in-depth next.  

If you are shooting at very wide angles - 35mm or wider on a full frame camera - you can likely go over the weight limit of the smaller units and still take long exposures.  For example, I had over 5 lbs of camera gear attached to the iOptron SkyTracker Pro, rated for just 2.6 lbs, and was still able to shoot up to 4 minute exposures at 14mm without star trails.  When I tested out the MoveShootMove star tracker I was able to get 5 minute exposures with about 6lbs of camera gear attached.

The main problem that I've seen my students have is an oversized ballhead.  For example, many people like to use the ReallyRightStuff ballheads, which tend to be very large and heavy.  Others like to use a 3-way Pan/Tilt head, which just make everything more difficult.  Plus, the tilt heads usually weigh a lot more than a simple ballhead.  With all that in mind, I personally recommend using something like the Benro IB2 ballhead.  It's small, lightweight, and easy to use at night.  You can find cheaper / lighter ballheads, and they usually work fine too.

If you want to use a telephoto lens, like a 70-200mm or 100-400mm, then I would only recommend the SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer.  The other trackers are not designed to handle the weight of those lenses. 

If you plan to stick with a wide angle lens, then any star tracker listed here will do fine.  The only caveat would be those who have a D850-sized camera with a heavy ballhead and a large wide-angle lens.  For people with large setups like that, you're better off sticking with either the SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer and avoiding the smaller trackers.


Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer MiniSky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini Sky-Watcher Star AdventurerSky-Watcher Star Adventurer iOptron SkyTracker ProiOptron SkyTracker Pro iOptron SkyGuider ProiOptron SkyGuider Pro

The photos above show each star tracker with the standard ballhead camera mount, suitable for camera rigs weighing up to about 5 lbs.


Counterweight Kits

Each tracker has an optional counterweight kit, and they all perform a bit different.  Ultimately, their function is the same.  A perfectly balanced counterweight will allow you to shoot longer exposures without star trails.  Properly balancing your camera gear will also put less stress on that motor!  Listed below are the specs and prices for each counterweight kit.

iOptron SkyTracker Pro - Optional ($80)

MoveShootMove - Does not have a counterweight system

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini - Optional ($30) and requires dec bracket ($40)

Vixen Polarie - Optional ($1,299)

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer - Included!

iOptron SkyGuider Pro - Included!


I highly recommend watching my video below on how to balance your counterweight with the SkyGuider Pro.  This same concept applies to all trackers.  Once you understand how to balance your camera gear, you'll be in good shape!




The iOptron SkyTracker Pro's counterweight kit is a pain to use and I can't recommend it for most people.  Frankly, you'd be better off upgrading to the SkyGuider Pro, which was designed with the counterweight system in mind.  Whether you have the SkyTracker Pro or SkyGuider Pro, you may need a second counterweight. You can purchase an additional counterweight for the iOptron SkyGuider Pro for $25.  Alternatively, you can get this nice extension rod from William Optics.  It should allow you to use a single counterweight and still maintain balance with a heavier camera rig.

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer and Mini will both use the same declination bracket and counterweight kit.  However, the larger Star Adventurer can handle twice the weight of the Mini.  This system works largely the same as the iOptron counterweights.

Very simply, if you plan to use a telephoto lens, or you have a heavy camera/lens, then I'd recommend going with the iOptron SkyGuider Pro or the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer.  These two trackers are built for heavy rigs, while the other trackers are more designed for small DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini with Counterweight KitSky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer with Counterweight attachedSky-Watcher Star Adventurer iOptron SkyTracker ProiOptron SkyTracker Pro iOptron SkyGuider Pro with counterweight attachediOptron SkyGuider Pro

This series shows the optional counterweight kits for each star tracker, the Sky-Watcher models use the exact same components




As usual, each star tracker uses a different battery style.  Some have built-in lithium ion batteries, and others require AA's.  The batteries usually last a surprisingly long time on star trackers.  

Vixen Polarie - 2 AA batteries ("4 hours runtime")  

MoveShootMove - Internal Lithium Ion Battery ("5 hour runtime")

iOptron SkyGuider Pro - Built-in Lithium Ion Battery ("20 hour runtime")

iOptron SkyTracker Pro - Built-in Lithium Ion Battery ("24 hour runtime")

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini - 2 AA batteries ("24 hour runtime")

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer - 4 AA batteries ("72 hour runtime")


With the exception of the Vixen Polarie and MoveShootMove,  all the star trackers should last you multiple nights shooting without a problem.  Personally, I prefer the rechargeable batteries found in the iOptron trackers, which last a long time and charge very quickly as well.  Plus, they can be charged with a standard micro-usb cable.  This makes it easy to charge the iOptron models while traveling, as you should have easy access to multiple USB chargers.  However, you may prefer to use AA batteries.

There's only been two nights where I've had a dead star tracker.  The first was with the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini.  Since I didn't have any AA's in my car, I was out of luck.  The second time was with the iOptron SkyGuider Pro.  Thankfully, I had a portable battery with me this time!  That allowed me to power the SkyGuider Pro while I photographed a nebula for a few hours.  

With that said, all of the star trackers, including the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer and Mini, can be powered by using a USB cable. This can be great if you have a portable power source! 

*In the previous version of this article I mentioned that it was possible to "overcharge" the SkyGuider Pro battery.  This was based on reading the manual, and talking with one of iOptron's service reps a few years back.  They recently clarified that this was a misunderstanding.  When the SkyGuider Pro / SkyTracker Pro's internal battery reaches a max threshold (fully charged), the main red light on the unit will begin blinking rapidly.  (You'll only see this if the unit is turned on while charging).  That's your cue to unplug the USB cable.  After you unplug the USB charging cable, the unit may still have a blinking red light (provided the tracker is turned on).  That's nothing to worry about, just leave the tracker turned on until the blinking red light stops, at that point the battery should have reduced the charge current to 0.  You can now turn off the tracker, and it's fully charged and ready to go!  According to iOptron - "one may leave the unit charged for any extended time (days) without worry about overcharge."



Camera Mount

The camera mount is an integral component of the star tracker, and it directly affects your ability to use a heavy camera and lens.  Every star tracker comes with a basic ballhead mounting screw option.  This allows you to attach your ballhead directly to the star tracker mount, and works great for lightweight setups.  (Usually 3 lbs or less)

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer and iOptron SkyGuider Pro both feature a much more sturdy camera mount that features a clutch mechanism.  This clutch allows you to tighten down the entire camera mount and have a very secure setup.  The smaller star trackers, SkyTracker Pro and SAM, only have a simple screw(s) that you tighten down, which keeps the camera mount from rotating.  In the photos below, you can see the two screws on the side of the SkyTracker Pro's camera mount, and the clutch mechanism on the SkyGuider Pro.

If you want to use a telephoto lens, I would highly recommend either the iOptron SkyGuider Pro or the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer.  The rest of the trackers don't have an ideal camera mount option for a 70-200 style lens.

SkyTracker ProSkyTracker Pro SkyGuider ProSkyGuider Pro

The SkyTracker Pro and SAM both use screws to secure the camera mount, while the SkyGuider Pro and Star Adventurer have a full clutch mechanism



Alt-Az Base / Wedge

An Alt-Az base, also known as a wedge or latitude base, allows you to adjust your star tracker very precisely when doing your polar alignment process.  The altitude adjustment knob will move your star tracker up and down.  The azimuth adjustment knobs will move your star tracker left and right.  You will use these knobs to move Polaris precisely in your polar scope.  If you don't use the Alt-Az base, you will need to attach the star tracker directly to a ballhead.  This will make a precise polar alignment much more difficult.

The iOptron star trackers both include the same alt-az base that helps with precise polar alignments.  First, it features a bubble level which will help ensure your tripod is level.  Also, you can adjust the altitude to match your current latitude, which will angle the star tracker to the same position as the North Star.  Then you can use the azimuth screws to move the stars left or right inside the polar scope.  This combination of altitude and azimuth adjustments means you can very precisely place Polaris at the proper location in your polar scope reticle.  However, the iOptron alt-az base isn't perfect.  The Altitude knob can be a pain to turn, especially if some grit gets inside the gears.  The azimuth screws are also pretty flimsy and hard to turn.  They don't have much room to turn either, which means you'll have a hard time doing your polar alignment in some cases.

The Sky-Watcher's base has a better design than the default iOptron base.  Not only is it easier to use, the movements are a bit smoother.  It is larger and heavier than the iOptron base though.  This base isn't perfect though, and it does share some of the same problems as the iOptron base.  Most notably, the altitude knob has a tendency of falling off.  Unless you have a small allen key that is needed, you will be unable to reattach it.  The azimuth screws can also be somewhat of a pain to turn.

William Optics also makes a replacement base for the SkyGuider Pro.  To be clear though, you can use this base with the Star Adventurer, SAM, and SkyTracker Pro.  This base is a huge improvement over both the iOptron and SkyWatcher bases, and the price reflects that.  The William Optics base retails for $198!  The WO base also comes in two different options - High Latitude and Low Latitude.  If you are usually 30 degrees or higher, then get the High Latitude Base.  If you find yourself below 27 degrees most of the time, get the Low Latitude base.  You can always take the base apart and convert it to either High/Low if you plan on traveling.  I would only recommend buying this base if you plan to do a lot of deep space astrophotography with your SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer.  If you will be shooting with a wide angle lens this base is overkill, both in size/weight and price.  You can read my full review of the base here.

The MoveShootMove star tracker does not come with a latitude base.  Instead, you must attach it to a ballhead.  Of course, if you already have a latitude base, you could attach it to that (you will need a dovetail plate to securely attach it though).  A ballhead will not be as precise as a legit latitude base, but it does the job well enough.  Since the MSM tracker is designed for wide angle lenses, you don't need to be super precise with your polar alignment.

All things considered, the base that comes with your tracker should suffice.  I would only recommend swapping it out if you break your base, or have serious problems with it.  I'm currently using (and loving) the William Optics High Latitude base for my astrophotography.

The William Optics base is noticeably larger and heavier than the iOptron base, however the screws are much easier to turn.  It's also much easier to do precise adjustments with the WO base.


Polar Scope

The Polar Scope is an integral piece of your star tracker setup.  If you plan to shoot at focal lengths 50mm or longer, you will need to do an accurate polar alignment.  Therefore, you will want a good polar scope to help find Polaris.  Let's see which star trackers actually come with a polar scope and how good they are.

iOptron SkyTracker Pro - Included (Requires installation each night)

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini - Included (Requires installation each night)

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer - Included (Built-in)

iOptron SkyGuider Pro - Included (Built-in)  

MoveShootMove - Optional - I recommend getting the Laser Pointer too!


Realistically, if you are using a wide angle lens with any of the star trackers, all you have to do is make sure it's roughly pointed up towards the North or South Celestial Pole.  For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, just look for Polaris.  If you can see Polaris somewhere inside the Polar scope, you should be able to shoot up to 4 minutes at 14mm with sharp stars.

The MoveShootMove tracker is the first to include a laser pointer to help with the polar alignment.  This not only speeds up the process, it makes it very easy for beginners!  All you have to do is turn on the laser, and adjust your ballhead until the laser is pointed right at Polaris.  Then you can lock everything down, and begin shooting!  However, there are a few problems with this.  First, you need to watch out for airplanes (you don't want to blind anyone by accident!)  Second, laser pointers may be hard to acquire in some countries.  Third, a laser pointer is of no real use if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, since there is no "South Star".  Having struggled with a polar scope for years, I really like how easy it is to do a polar alignment with a laser pointer.  You could always just buy your own, and fasten it to any star tracker.  The MoveShootMove includes a nice laser pointer bracket though, which locks it in and helps to quickly do a polar alignment.  If you don't want to use a laser pointer, MSM does offer a traditional polar scope instead.

The two entry level star trackers, the Mini and the SkyTracker Pro, both require the polar scope to be installed each night for your polar alignment.  This is very easy to do, you'll just slide it right into the slot.  This actually works out pretty well, especially on the SkyTracker Pro.  

Both the high end star trackers, SkyGuider Pro and Star Adventurer, have the polar scope built-in.  You shouldn't have to worry about them.  You can take off the front and rear caps and quickly do your polar alignment.  However, it is possible that the polar scopes were not installed properly.  Before using your star tracker, you will want to double check for these problems.

It's important to note that the iOptron models both have a built-in red light illuminator, which will help you see the reticle at night.  However, the Sky-Watcher models both require you to install an illuminator at the end of your polar scope, which can be a minor pain.  Therefore, I highly recommend the iOptron trackers when it comes to the polar scope. 

If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, you are going to have a bit more trouble doing your polar alignment.  As there is no "North Star" to easily align to, you will need to do your polar alignment on multiple stars.  I recently created a full tutorial for doing a polar alignment in the Southern Hemisphere, I would recommend watching it first.  A laser pointer will be of no help to those in the Southern Hemisphere unfortunately.

The Sky-Watcher models' polar scope has a nifty graphic in the reticle which may help with alignment.  You can align the 4 Sigma Octans stars to the polar scope reticle markings.  This can make your alignment much easier.  The iOptron polar scopes don't have anything like this.  If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, you may seriously want to get one of the Sky-Watcher trackers just for the improved polar scope!  (This is something I explain the Star Tracker Tutorials)

Lastly, you'll need a smartphone app to help with your precise polar alignment.  Basically, you need to position Polaris in the correct spot or else you will get star trails.  I recommend using the free SAM Console App  for all Sky-Watcher users (iPhone and Android).  The app has a built-in Polar Clock Utility that matches the reticle below.  For iOptron users, you can get the PolarFinder App or the Polar Scope Align App.

In 2019, iOptron released a new version of the SkyGuider Pro which includes a built-in "iPolar" camera.  This camera replaces the polar scope and should allow you to do a more precise alignment with your laptop and the iPolar software.  However, I do not recommend getting this variant of the SkyGuider Pro.  In most cases, the iPolar version will cause more headaches than anything.  If you want to do Milky Way photography for example, you'll always need to drag your laptop out on-location with you, to do a simple polar alignment.  The only time I would recommend the iPolar version of the SkyGuider Pro is if you live in the Southern Hemisphere.  This may actually really help you out, since the software can tell you exactly how to get a perfect polar alignment.

Sky-Watcher Polar ScopeSky-Watcher Polar Scope Reticle

The Sky-Watcher reticle will make polar alignments easier in the southern hemisphere



Ease of Use

All of the star trackers are very easy to use, once you understand the basics.  The biggest difference between the star trackers is the button layout.

The MoveShootMove only has two buttons.  One to power on/off the tracker, and the other to change the tracking speed.  I like the simplicity of this design.  A dim red light will illuminate your current tracking speed and the hemisphere.  The MSM tracker is different than all the others, as it does not come with a latitude base.  Therefore, you will need 2 ballheads - one to hold the tracker, the other to hold your camera.  Thankfully I already had 2 ballheads, so this wasn't a big deal.  My favorite part of the MSM is the included laser pointer.  This makes the polar alignment process incredibly simple!  No polar scope required!  I can now do a polar alignment in seconds, rather than minutes!  I would say the MSM tracker is one of the easiest to use at night.

The iOptron models have very simple layouts, with just a few buttons.  The SkyTracker Pro features switches on the back that allow you to easily change your tracking speed, hemisphere, and red-light brightness.  There's also a RA slew button, pressing it once will move the camera around clockwise and pushing it again will rotate the camera counter-clockwise.  The SkyGuider Pro only has 3 buttons.  Again, you can control your tracking speed, hemisphere, and red-light brightness.  You can also slew the camera clockwise or counter-clockwise using the arrow buttons.  I like the simplicity of the iOptron models, and I haven't had any problems with them.

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer and Mini could not be any more different.  The Star Adventurer has a rotary dial that allows you to set your tracking speed, a hemisphere switch, and RA slew buttons.  This makes it fairly quick and easy to get setup and start shooting.  However, it's possible this rotary dial will get nudged at any time.  When I was driving out to the desert from LA, this happened to me.  The tracker was left running for hours, and I didn't realize until I began setting up for the night.  Granted, the Star Adventurer boasts the best battery life of all the trackers.  Still, it's a serious design problem.  If you're just shooting long exposures at night though, the Star Adventurer is very easy to use - turn the dial to the "Star" icon and begin shooting!

The Star Adventurer Mini only has one button!  This is used to turn the star tracker on and off.  Once the Mini is turned on, it will begin broadcasting its own WiFi network.  You will need to connect your smartphone to this WiFi network first.  Then, you can open the SAM Console App to control the Mini.  The app lets you control all the basic star tracker functions, like the tracking speed and hemisphere and it even features a built-in Polar Finder utility.  This will easily allow you to position Polaris precisely in the polar scope.  If you've connected your camera to the Mini via a SNAP cable, you can even use the SAM Console App to set the intervalometer on your camera to help create a timelapse or just capture long exposure images.

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini is great when it works, and a nightmare when it doesn't.  Since it only has a power button, you will need to control everything from the SAM Console App on your phone.  When I was testing out the Mini, I did have some connectivity problems using the app.  It would randomly disconnect and sometimes the Mini would stopped tracking in the middle of a photo.  However, after switching to a different Mini, I didn't have any problems.  I'm not quite sure what was going wrong with the original Mini I had been using.  That's the problem with being dependent on an app and WiFi connection, you are out of luck if something goes wrong.  Every other star tracker can be controlled by buttons on the device itself, no smartphone connection required!

Star Adventurer MiniSAM's single button Star Adventurer's Rotary DialStar Adventurer's Rotary Dial SkyTracker ProSkyTracker Pro's buttons SkyGuider ProSkyGuider Pro

The SAM is the only star tracker without dedicated buttons to change your Hemisphere, Tracking Speed, and RA Slew




Another important consideration is the design of the star tracker.  Even if a star tracker excels in other areas, a bad design will ultimately cause you a lot of frustration when you're actually trying to transport and use the star tracker.  Let's take a closer look at each one next.

*You can click on the star tracker's name to visit the corresponding photo gallery, and get a closer look at each tracker.


The iOptron SkyTracker Pro is an all-plastic body, with all the necessary switches and inputs located on the back of the tracker.  *I was informed by iOptron that this plastic body was a design feature, in order to minimize the weight of the device.  The internals are all metal.  The camera mount features a nice rubber padding to protect your ballhead from any scratches.  Protruding from the right side of the tracker is a slot for your polar scope.  Overall, I like the simple and compact design of the SkyTracker Pro.  However, it is by no means weather-sealed.  I've noticed that you can clearly see the circuit boards and other internal components from the outside of the star tracker.  

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro  currently comes in two different configurations - Polar Scope and iPolar.  The polar scope version is more traditional, and works quite well.  The new iPolar version relies on a small camera and software to do your polar alignment.  This might be great if you live in the Southern Hemisphere (where a visual alignment is difficult), but in the northern hemisphere the iPolar is more of a hassle than anything.  The software is not very user friendly, and I could never get it to work on my laptop!  I've also heard reports from many people that the software did not do the best job with the polar alignment process.  Therefore, I recommend you avoid the iPolar version, and stick with the original SkyGuider Pro model.  Regardless which model you get, the SkyGuider Pro has some nice features.  It's one of the most compact star trackers available, making it easy to travel with.  It's also got a decent clutch mechanism and declination bracket, which are required for deep space work.  However, the Quality Assurance could be better.  Some SkyGuider Pro's work great for years, while other SkyGuider Pros have serious problems right out of the box.  If you get a working SkyGuider Pro, it will do a great job! 

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer was recently updated to the 2i edition.  This new version of the Star Adventurer is almost identical to the original, with one notable exception - WiFi.  This allows you to control the star tracker from a smartphone app, just like the Star Adventurer Mini.  That might sound like a great addition, but I wouldn't say it's worth upgrading if you have the original Star Adventurer.  The WiFi features are nice, but still leave a lot to be desired.  The Star Adventurer 2i is still a big, bulky, and clunky star tracker.  I have a few big problems with the design of this tracker.  First, the battery compartment door.  Whenever I reach into my case to pull out the Star Adventurer, I inevitably grab the sides of this flimsy plastic cover, and it falls off.  This might sound like a minor problem, but it's incredibly frustrating to deal with every time you use this tracker.  To make matters worse, it's surprisingly difficult to put the cover back into place for some reason.  The Star Adventurer also has a rotary dial on the side, which is used to select the tracking speed.  When the dial is moved to any other position besides 'OFF', the tracker will be turned on.  Unfortunately, this dial is moved very easily.  In my experience, there were a few times where simply putting the star tracker into my hard-case caused the dial to rotate, and the tracker to turn on.  Therefore, it would be very easy to accidentally drain the battery on the Star Adventurer.  Finally, the polar scope on the Star Adventurer could be much better.  There cheap plastic illuminator is easily lost, and that means you have no easy way of seeing the polar scope reticule at night.  I recommend just shining a red headlamp over the front of the polar scope, to briefly illuminate the reticule when needed.  There's also a chance your polar scope is not aligned properly from the factory.  That means you need to make some adjustments yourself, which is a real pain to do.  All things considered, the Star Adventurer is a solid, but clunky star tracker. 

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini is a small, compact star tracker with a simple design.  It is basically a small cube that can be installed and used in a variety of different configurations.  The Mini only has one button on it, the power button, and 2 LED lights to indicate the WiFi and Power.  On one side is a battery compartment to fit the 2 AA batteries.  To use the Polar Scope, you will need to remove the small rubber plug on the camera mount, and also remove the circular piece on the back of the tracker.  Then you can slide the polar scope up through the middle of the star tracker.  Overall, I like the design of the Mini, and everything works quite nicely on it!

The MoveShootMove is the most portable star tracker here, it can even fit in my pocket!  This makes it great for hikers and backpackers who don't want to lug any additional camera gear into the backcountry.  I really like the simplified design and the included laser pointer.  It's very easy to use, especially for beginners.  The only real downside of this tracker is that you generally need two ballheads.  Therefore, if you only have one ballhead, this will add to the total cost.  The tracker itself is very streamlined, and there aren't any extra features.  


Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer MiniSky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini Sky-Watcher Star AdventurerSky-Watcher Star Adventurer iOptron SkyTracker ProiOptron SkyTracker Pro iOptron SkyGuider ProiOptron SkyGuider Pro

All star trackers are largely designed the same, with a polar scope going through the tracker, and a camera mount on the front



Extra Features

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini has 3 timelapse modes built into the SAM Console App.  These timelapse modes will allow you to have a beautiful panning motion throughout your timelapse, when setup properly.  You'll want to get a SNAP cable and connect your camera to the Mini, to get the most out of this tracker.  Once connected, you can control your camera's shutter directly from the SAM Console App.  The Astro Timelapse will track the stars for the duration of the exposure, then rotate back to the starting position, and repeat.  This will create a timelapse where the foreground stays the same, and the stars move overhead.  The Regular Exposure Timelapse can add a simple pan to your daytime timelapses, you can even control how far the Mini pans across the scene.  The Long Exposure Timelapse can be used at night, or during the day with ND filters.  In this mode, the Mini stops moving for the duration of the exposure, then pans slightly, and takes another exposure.  The SAM Console App also includes a Polar Clock Utility which will show you where to position Polaris or the Sigma Octans stars in your Polar Scope, it can also show your current latitude.  Clearly, the Mini has a ton of great, innovative features!

The latest Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i now features the same WiFi functionality as the Star Adventurer Mini.  With the help of the SAM Console App on your smartphone, you can control various aspects of the tracker.  The main use, as of right now, is to do different timelapse modes.  I personally don't do many timelapses, so this feature isn't very useful to me.

Neither of the iOptron models have any such features, and the iOptron alt-az base isn't really designed with timelapses in mind.  For example, the Sky-Watcher alt-az base can be rotated to 90 degrees, which is necessary to have a horizontal pan in your timelapse.  The iOptron base can only go to about 60 degrees.  Of course, you could attach your iOptron star tracker directly to a ballhead.  At that point, you could put the tracker at a 90 degree angle and do simple left / right panning motions, just like you would be doing with the Sky-Watcher trackers.

The same applies to the Vixen Polarie, you could attach it directly to a ballhead and adjust the ballhead to either 90 degrees, or 0 degrees to have a simple panning motion (either left/right or up/down).

The PleiadesCaptured with the SkyGuider Pro and Tamron 150-600mm

I captured this photo of the Horsehead Nebula with my SkyGuider Pro, William Optics SpaceCat telescope, and ZWO ASI 1600MM Pro 


Price / Value

Depending on which bundles you are able to find online, you may see slightly different prices.  However, I'm going to list the total prices based off the MSRP listed on the official websites.  The links below will take you to B&H.  Therefore, there may be some slight pricing discrepancies.  Also, if a star tracker has prices added together, that includes all of the necessary components required for a sturdy setup.  You can click on each price to take you directly to the corresponding accessory.

iOptron SkyTracker Pro - $300  

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini - $299 + $65 +$20 = $384

Vixen Polarie - $400 

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i - $419

iOptron SkyGuider Pro - $428

MoveShootMove - $218


The iOptron SkyTracker Pro has an optional $80 counterweight kit that can increase the total payload to 6.6 lbs.  However, it's poorly designed and you'd be better off investing that $80 into the SkyGuider Pro, which can easily handle more weight.

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini works well when paired with the Sky-Watcher base, which retails for $65.  This will allow you to utilize the Mini for the different timelapse modes, and it makes your polar alignment process considerably easier.  You will also want to get the SNAP cable for your particular camera, which will allow you to control the camera's shutter via the SAM Console App.  While the SNAP cable isn't necessary, I'd highly recommend it.  You can also purchase the Declination Bracket ($40) and the Counterweight Kit ($30), however I wouldn't say they are necessary.  The combined package would allow you to have a more balanced setup in some scenarios and will let you use a telephoto lens.  If you decide to upgrade to the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer in the future, which can handle more weight, you can always use the same base, declination bracket, and counterweight.

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i now includes everything you'll need in one bundle.  This includes the latitude base and counterweight kit.

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro has everything you'll need in one package.  iOptron also makes the iPolar version, which retails for $598!  I do not recommend buying the iPolar version, you are much better off sticking with the normal SkyGuider Pro with the built-in polar scope.

The MoveShootMove has multiple bundles available, which range in price from $200 - $400.  Personally, I would recommend the $218 bundle which includes the laser pointer.  This is the easiest way to do a polar alignment and you really don't need any of the other gear in the various bundles.  However, if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, the laser pointer will be pretty much useless.  Therefore, you'd want to get the polar scope bundle instead. 

Orion NebulaTaken with the SkyGuider Pro and Tamron 150-600mm

I captured this photo of the Orion Nebula from a fairly light-polluted area in Northeast Ohio using my SkyGuider Pro, Tamron 150-600mm lens, and Nikon D750.  


Final Verdict

Unfortunately, each star tracker has at least one drawback.  The iOptron SkyTracker Pro's weakness is the sub-par counterweight kit that is frustrating to set up and use effectively.  The Star Adventurer Mini's weakness is that it relies completely on the SAM Console App to function.  The Star Adventurer's main weaknesses are the flimsy plastic covers that are always falling off, the easily rotated tracking speed dial, which can drain the battery if turned on by accident, and the overall size and weight of the tracker.  The iOptron SkyGuider Pro's weakness is the overly complicated installation and setup process for the declination bracket and the lack of Quality Assurance.  The MoveShootMove has a fairly weak battery life of 5 hours and can't safely handle large telephoto lenses.  With that said, these are all very minor problems and each star tracker will get the job done.

All things considered, you should choose your star tracker primarily based on the combined weight of your camera, lens, and ballhead.  Frankly, as long as you will be using a wide angle lens, any star tracker will do the job.  However, if you want to use a telephoto lens too, then I would only recommend the SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer.  Both star trackers can handle up to 11 lbs of camera gear, and they feature a sturdier design. 

If you are a complete beginner living in the Northern Hemisphere, I would highly recommend the MoveShootMove star tracker with the laser pointer bundle.  I've been using this star tracker quite a bit lately, and I really do like it.  Not only is it very compact and easy to carry around, you can do a polar alignment in seconds with the laser pointer.  I guarantee this will make your life a lot easier at night, especially if you are new to star trackers.  Just remember, this tracker is primarily for wide-angle shooting (50mm or wider).  If you plan to use a telephoto lens, I would go for the SkyGuider Pro instead.

For those living in the Southern Hemisphere, the iPolar version of the SkyGuider Pro may well be your best option.  Many people have a hard time doing a visual polar alignment in the Southern Hemisphere, and the iPolar software can make this process much easier!  Of course, you'll always need a laptop with you.

My final recommendation would be the iOptron SkyGuider Pro.  It has allowed me to capture some breathtaking photos over the years, and I haven't had any problems with mine.  However, I cannot say the same for many of my students.  I recently taught a deep space astrophotography workshop, and 4 out of 5 SkyGuider Pro's had serious problems that all required taking the tracker apart and repairing manually.  Apparently iOptron has some Quality Assurance problems, although their customer service is usually pretty quick to respond to any emails.  The SkyWatcher trackers, including the Star Adventurer, are prone to have QA problems too, so this is not just an iOptron problem.

Now that I've worked with dozens of people and star trackers, it seems like every tracker has its own problems. Sometimes the clutch gets stuck, or it won't ever tighten down all the way.  Sometimes the tracker's motor stalls and will not run.  The iPolar software can be a pain to use, and randomly does not work.  I've seen multiple times where the altitude knob on both the iOptron and SkyWatcher base falls off completely!  Point being, all of these star trackers could use a new 2020 version.  I'm hoping iOptron and SkyWatcher have been creating the next generation of star trackers, with a focus on better design, higher-quality parts, and more rigorous quality assurance.  The current star trackers work, but I'm starting to get a bit worried by the amount of problems I've seen lately.  I suppose I'm lucky I have had no real problems with my SkyGuider Pro over the past 3 years...

Regardless which star tracker you choose, you will undoubtedly have questions.  Over the past 2 years I've been hard at work creating a full-length tutorial for each star tracker!   My goal with these tutorials is to teach you everything, from A to Z.  That includes planning, camera gear, camera settings, how to setup the star tracker, and even post-processing!  

For more information on these tutorials, please click here.


[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) alt-az base astrophotography counterweight kit declination bracket ioptron ioptron skyguider pro ioptron skytracker pro milky way nightscapes photography polar scope sam console app sky tracking camera mount Skyguider Pro skytracker astrophotography skytracker pro sky-watcher star adventurer star adventurer 2i star adventurer mini star tracker star tracking camera mount take better photos at night which star tracker is the best Sat, 25 Aug 2018 21:18:21 GMT
iOptron SkyGuider Pro Review iOptron SkyGuider Pro Review

Last Updated: April 26, 2020

The SkyGuider Pro is an excellent star tracker, and it features a number of improvements over the SkyTracker Pro.  In this review, I'll explain the most important aspects of the SkyGuider Pro, like the counterweight system, polar alignment, build quality, and if it's worth the price.  Before I get into the actual review, I would recommend you watch the SkyGuider Pro overview video.  This will give you a good look at how the SkyGuider Pro works.

If you're interested in learning even more about the SkyGuider Pro, I've recently created a course that contains over 15 hours of tutorial videos!  You'll learn the best camera settings to use, how to setup the SkyGuider Pro in the field, and even post-processing.  Click here for more information on the iOptron SkyGuider Pro Full Course

If you want to learn more about photographing nebula and galaxies with the SkyGuider Pro, check out my new Deep Space Course, which has over 12 hours of tutorials!  You will learn how to find, photograph, and edit your images.




Achieving an accurate polar alignment is relatively easy with the SkyGuider Pro.  The SGP comes with a built-in polar scope, which will allow to you precisely align to the north star, provided you have the smartphone app.  Android users should buy the Polar Finder App, while iPhone users can get this PolarScope Align app.  The app is critical for an accurate alignment, as you will need to know the exact spot to position Polaris inside of the polar scope reticle.  

One problem I do have with the SkyGuider Pro is that the polar scope is only illuminated at certain angles, and you need to rotate the reticle around to get it precisely lined up.  Depending on your declination bracket configuration, this may cause some problems.  For example, I need to rotate my entire camera upside-down to activate the red light.   This is scary at night, having my camera dangling while I do a precise polar alignment.  If you keep the default configuration, you should only have to rotate things slightly.  For more information, check out this discussion.

If you plan to do deep space astrophotography, you may find that the included latitude base is a pain to use.  The azimuth screws can be hard to turn and they aren't very precise either.  I've also had the altitude knob fall off my latitude base multiple times.  For those just doing Milky Way photography, this isn't that big of a deal.  You don't have to be as precise with your polar alignment.  However, a rough polar alignment will cause a lot of problems for deep space work.  I now use a William Optics Latitude Base instead.  This base is way better than the default iOptron one.  I would only recommend the William Optics base for those focusing on deeps space work.  It's not necessary for Milky Way photography.


Build Quality

I was originally a big fan of the SkyGuider Pro's build quality.  I liked the small size of the tracker, clutch mechanism for securing your camera mount, Guider input, declination bracket and counterweight, etc...  Apparently, the internals were also well designed.  Read this discussion for more information.  

Now that I've worked with dozens of students across the country, I'm starting to change my opinion of the build quality, and more importantly the Quality Asssurance, from iOptron.  In November 2019 I taught a deep space astrophotography workshop in Florida.  During that workshop, 5 students had SkyGuider Pro's.  Sadly, only one student's SGP actually worked flawlessly.  Every other student had serious problems with their SkyGuider Pros.  In some cases, the clutch could never be tightened down far enough.  That meant a slight nudge to the camera would cause the entire camera, lens, and counterweight system to move!  There was another student who's SkyGuider Pro clutch was so tight, it took us half a day to finally pry it loose.  Based on all the problems I've seen over the past 2 years, it seems that iOptron needs to work on their Quality Control.


Design / Installation

The first way to mount your camera is the traditional mounting block, which comes pre-installed.  This is great for lightweight rigs under 3 lbs, you simply attach your ballhead to the screw!  This makes for a fast, easy installation process when you are in the field at night.  Even if you are using a full-frame camera and heavy wide-angle lens, this mounting method should work fine.

If you want to use a telephoto lens, then I'd recommend removing this camera mounting block and attaching the declination bracket instead.  The declination bracket also includes a counterweight, which can be used to balance everything out.  Once you have a balance setup, you can shoot longer exposures without star trails.  It will also put less stress on your star tracker.

Thankfully, the counterweight system is very easy to install and use.  Balancing the counterweight is also a quick, easy process thanks to the design of the SkyGuider Pro.  Simply loosen the clutch, rotate the mount so that the camera and counterweights are horizontal and move the actual counterweight in or out until the system is balanced.  Having come from the SkyTracker Pro, and its awful counterweight system, this is my favorite part of the SkyGuider Pro!

Light-weight Wide Angle Setup Heavy Wide-Angle Setup Telephoto Setup

Depending on how you setup your declination bracket, you may have some balancing problems.  The SkyGuider Pro gives you multiple camera installation options when using the SkyGuider Pro.  Choosing the right one is critical to having a properly balanced setup.  I recommend watching my SkyGuider Pro Overview video for more information on the different mounting options.  If you mount the camera on the long end of the declination bracket, you will probably need to purchase an additional counterweight in order to properly balance your rig.  For example, I only need 1 counterweight to balance my 70-200mm lens when the camera is mounted on the short end of the declination bracket.  If I mount the camera on the long end, I will need 2 counterweights.  An additional counterweight can be purchased for $25.

Overall, I'm very pleased with the build quality of the SkyGuider Pro!  One of my biggest problems with the SkyTracker Pro was the poor build quality and design of the optional counterweight system.  Thankfully the SGP handles a heavy camera rig with ease and the camera mount is very sturdy.  



The battery lasts a very long time, and I've been able to shoot multiple nights without a problem.  According to iOptron, the battery should last for up to 24 hours before needing charged.  I prefer the rechargeable battery compared to AA or AAA batteries.

There is one confusing thing about the battery though.  When you are charging the battery, the light will flash when the battery is fully charged (the SkyGuider must be turned on to see the flashing light).  Sometimes the SkyGuider Pro will flash even when the battery is unplugged.  I didn't understand why this was happening, so I contacted iOptron.  After talking with iOptron support, I learned why.  If the voltage of the battery gets too high, the flashing light will appear.  So, if you've charged your SkyGuider Pro, unplugged the USB cable, and still notice a flashing light, leave the SkyGuider Pro turned on until it stops.  Then the battery should be running optimally.

The battery in the SkyGuider Pro is definitely a winner!  Not only does it last a long time, it can be charged quite fast using a simple micro-usb cable and any number of charging options, including your laptop.


Tracking and Guiding

I've been able to shoot up to about 2 minutes on the 70-200mm and up to 45 seconds on the 150-600mm.  At wider focal lengths, I can comfortably shoot between 3 - 5+ minutes, without star trails.  All of this really depends on how well you did your polar alignment, and if you balanced your camera properly.

Therefore, the SkyGuider Pro can easily handle wide-angle shooting, but tends to struggle when you add a telephoto lens.  This is caused by a variety of factors.  Keep in mind, even the big telescope mounts have problems with tracking accuracy, by default.  Almost every astrophotographer with a telescope and big mount use an auto-guider.  This auto-guider is usually a small CCD camera attached to a guide scope.  

Thankfully the SkyGuider Pro comes with a input for an auto-guider!  When I use my auto-guider, I can easily shoot 4+ minute exposures, even at 600mm!  This results in much cleaner photos at telephoto focal lengths.  Plus, an auto-guider will allow you to do a much more precise polar alignment.  Instead of crouching down and looking through the polar scope, you can use an application called SharpCap.  This will make things much easier on your back!

For more information on auto-guiding, check out my detailed article and tutorial video here. Rho Ophiuchi


SkyGuider Pro - iPolar Edition

In 2019 iOptron released a new version of the SkyGuider Pro which included their iPolar camera.  The main benefit of the iPolar version is that you can do a precise polar alignment using the iPolar software on your laptop.  If you've ever had trouble doing a visual alignment with a polar scope, this could really help!  For those living in the Southern Hemisphere, where a visual alignment is much more difficult, the iPolar may be a wise investment!  

Unfortunately, the iPolar replaces the polar scope.  Therefore, you will always need a laptop out in the field with you to do a polar alignment.  You can no longer do a visual alignment.  This is a big problem, as far as I'm concerned.  If you buy the iPolar version and want to do Milky Way photography, you'd need to lug around your laptop out with you.  

All things considered, I usually recommend that people avoid the iPolar version of the SkyGuider Pro.  If anything, it may make your life more difficult at night.  For example, using the original SkyGuider Pro, I can quickly look through the polar scope and do a visual alignment.  I can also quickly check that the polar alignment is still accurate by looking through the scope.  If I want to do Milky Way photography, I can travel fast and light.  However, if you had the iPolar version you would need to bring your laptop with you everywhere.  


Customer Service

iOptron's customer service is pretty good.  I've had a few questions about the SkyGuider Pro over the past few weeks, and their support team has always responded very quickly! 

When my SkyTracker Pro randomly died on me, they were very quick to respond and get me an RMA number.  However, I was required to pay for shipping my star tracker to and from their facility.  Even though the fix was covered under warranty, I still paid about $20 total for shipping.  Not a big deal, but I wish they would've at least covered the return shipping.  They also never told me what went wrong; it would have been nice to learn what had broken. 

I have not had any issues with my SkyGuider Pro yet.  Apparently that means I'm very lucky!  As I mentioned in the Build Quality section, I've had many students who had serious problems with their SkyGuider Pro.  While iOptron's QA needs some work, their Customer Service is usually very good and responsive.

Andromeda Galaxy - 600mm (Uncropped)


Final Thoughts

Overall, the SkyGuider Pro is a solid star tracker.  For me, the best part is the improved camera mount and the ability to use a big camera and heavy lens without any problems.  I had originally bought the SkyTracker Pro, which did a great job for wide angle photos, but was unable to handle a 70-200mm lens.  Since I was planning to spend a lot of time under dark skies in 2018, I wanted a star tracker that could handle a heavy payload.  The SkyGuider Pro does the job!

I love using the SkyGuider Pro for all of my astrophotography now.  If you've never used a star tracker before, you'll be amazed by how much better your night sky images can look!

Personally, I wish I would have bought the SkyGuider Pro instead of the SkyTracker Pro.  At the time, I didn't want to spend over $400 on a star tracker.  Now that I've seen just how much of a difference star trackers make in image quality, and how bad the counterweight system is on the SkyTracker Pro, I think the SkyGuider Pro is well worth the price.  If you are finding yourself in a similar position, keep in mind the SkyGuider Pro will scale with you as your interest and skill in astrophotography progresses.  It's almost like going from a crop-sensor camera to a full-frame camera. 

Finally, if you want to learn how to use the SkyGuider Pro to capture amazing photos, check out my full-length SkyGuider Pro Tutorial Course.  This course will teach you everything you need to know, including post-processing!   


[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astrophotography best star tracker ioptron ioptron skyguider pro milky way photography review skyguider pro skytracker skytracker pro star tracker what star tracker to buy? Wed, 27 Jun 2018 03:18:27 GMT
Nikon D750 'Service Advisory' - Long Exposure Noise Reduction

Recently, I discovered a weird 'glitch' caused by Long Exposure Noise Reduction on the Nikon D750.  Note, this only applies to astrophotographers and night photographers taking images with stars in them.  If your image does not have stars, you shouldn't notice any problems.

When LENR is enabled, the processing causes stars to lose their true colors and turn green, yellow, cyan, and purple.  After doing numerous tests, I've confirmed this problem is directly related to the LENR processing.  The comparison below should give you a good look at the problem.  





What is Long Exposure Noise Reduction?

When LENR is turned on, your camera will take 2 exposures.  The first is a normal photo, the second is a dark frame.  This dark frame is mainly used to find Hot Pixels.  Once the camera has both images, it will automatically remove the Hot Pixels and save one final RAW or JPEG image.  You can try this process manually.  For example, take a normal photo.  Immediately after that finishes, put your lens cap on and take another image with the same settings.  This will be your dark frame.  Using various Astro photo stacking programs, or just Photoshop, you can subtract the Hot Pixels from your normal image.  However, this might not always work well.  Therefore, I like using LENR in-camera.




Temporary Fix

As of now, there are 2 ways to fix this problem in Post-Processing.  The first requires Nikon's Capture NX-D software.  Once you open your RAW image, find the Noise Reduction panel on the right-side.  You should see an Astro Noise Reduction checkbox.  Once clicked, it should automatically remove any hot pixels and fix the color shift issue reasonably well.

Of course, using Capture NX-D isn't part of most photographers' workflow.  Personally, I use Adobe Camera RAW to initially edit my RAW photos.  By increasing the Color noise reduction slider, and decreasing the Color Detail slider, the color shift is drastically reduced.  However, this may negatively impact real colors in the image. 



Latest Updates

After speaking with the Nikon Reps in 2018, I got a final answer from the Nikon techs.  "...the result is that the original images exhibited no color aliasing, therefore, it is assumed that using Photoshop had some impact that resulted in the color changes seen after processing."

In other words, Nikon is saying that the problem comes with the RAW processor's debayering process.  However, I tested multiple RAW processors (Nikon Capture NX-D, Camera RAW, RAW Therapee).  They all exhibited the same problem, with varying degrees of intensity depending on which debayering process was used.  This problem was only visible in images taken with LENR ON.  Therefore, I would argue the problem is still related to the camera itself, not the RAW processor you use.  Unfortunately, it seems Nikon has no interest in fixing this problem.

If you have a Nikon camera with the ability to enable LENR, do you notice this problem?  In order to test, take an image of the night sky with LENR turned off.  Then take another image, same settings, with LENR turned On.  I noticed this issue mainly on my wider angle lenses, like the Sigma 35mm and Nikon 14-24mm.  If you have a star tracker, try using that to take a longer exposure, which might help exaggerate this issue.

If you find this same problem on another Nikon camera model, please let me know!  Either mention it in the comments, or send an email to [email protected] with sample images.


[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astrophotography d750 firmware lenr long exposure long exposure noise reduction nikon nikon d750 problem Wed, 23 May 2018 21:05:58 GMT
Sigma 14-24mm vs Nikon 14-24mm - Astrophotography

This morning I had the opportunity to test out the new Sigma 14-24mm!  For this test, I drove down to the local "dark" sky park in Ohio and took some test shots.  As you will see, it's virtually impossible to find a truly dark sky here in Northeast Ohio...  Just 2 more weeks and I'll be back under an actual dark sky - in the Utah desert!

*If you would like to get a closer look at these photos, you can download the full-resolution JPEGs here.  Desktop users can click the download icon at the top-left of each image.  Mobile users can scroll up, click the arrow in the upper right, and click download.


RAW Photos

This first comparison looks at the RAW files, straight out of camera, at both 14mm and 24mm.  The 14mm photos were taken at f/2.8, ISO 800, and 15 seconds, while the 24mm images were shot using an 8 second Shutter Speed.

*Note: The Nikon image is slightly out-of-focus in the 24mm example, making the stars appear brighter / larger


Nikon @14mm
Sigma @14mm



Nikon @24mm
Sigma @24mm



Edited Photos

For this comparison, I increased the Exposure, Saturation, Contrast and I reduced the Highlights.  I also used the automatic Lens Profile Correction for the Nikon to remove the vignette, and fixed the vignette manually on the Sigma.  The same edits were applied to each photo.


Nikon @14mm
Sigma @14mm



Nikon @24mm
Sigma @24mm



Coma / Astigmatism

I cropped heavily into the upper right corner of the image, to show a clear look at any star distortion.  The Shutter Speed was 15 seconds, which means there is a slight amount of motion blur due to the Earth's rotation.






For this comparison, I took the edited images, removed any Profile Corrections, and brightened the Sigma by roughly 1/3 Stop to compensate for the T/Stop difference.  At this point, we should have a clear look at the vignette for each lens. 

Both lenses have minimal vignette, however the Sigma has a slight advantage.  The Nikon is rated at -1.6 EV on DXO Mark, I would guess the Sigma will be rated around -1.5 EV.







Overall, the Sigma did a fantastic job!  Remember, you can visit the image gallery and download all the test images for a better look.  Also, if you want an even more in-depth look at how the Sigma 14-24mm performs, here's Dustin Abbot's fantastic video review

Let's break down each point:


  • Coma: I was very impressed with the Sigma's coma performance!  Both lenses do remarkably well, but the Sigma does a slightly better job. 


  • Transmission: After carefully comparing the images, the Sigma appears to be a 1/3 Stop darker than the Nikon.  The Nikon is rated at T/3.0 Stops, which would make the Sigma roughly T/3.3 Stops.


  • Distortion: The Nikon is just slighly wider at 14mm than the Sigma, however the Sigma appears to have better distortion control.


  • Colors: The color balance on the Sigma is quite close to the Nikon 14-24mm, but slightly warmer.  By subtracting 200K and adding +4 Purple Tint, I was able to get the Sigma looking nearly identical to the Nikon 14-24mm.




  • Focusing: Having spent a lot of time focusing lenses at night, I found the Sigma to be a bit easier to achieve sharp focus.  


After these tests, it's clear that the Sigma 14-24mm Art lens will make an excellent addition to any night photographer's collection!


To learn more about Astrophotography, be sure to check out my free tutorial!




[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astrophotography lens review nightscapes nikon nikon 14-24mm nikon 14-24mm vs sigma 14-24mm review sigma sigma 14-24mm sigma 14-24mm review Fri, 20 Apr 2018 11:32:02 GMT
iOptron SkyTracker Pro Review A star tracker is the most effective way to capture higher-quality nightscapes and astro images!  With a star tracker, you will no longer be limited by the earth's rotation.  These devices allow you to shoot much longer exposures, even up to 5 minutes, without star trails!  The SkyTracker Pro was my very first star tracker purchase.  Since July 2017, I've learned a lot more about star trackers.  I am now finally able to give a review on the SkyTracker Pro. 

If you are still unfamiliar with Star Trackers, consider reading my Star Tracker Tutorial and buying guide, which covers everything you need to know.

I purchased the SkyTracker Pro in July 2017, before embarking on a 3 month photography trip out West.  I planned to use the STP to capture stunning night sky images along the way.  While there were a few hiccups and problems, the SkyTracker Pro was a great investment.  Let's take a look at the SkyTracker Pro in-depth.


Ease of Use

The SkyTracker Pro is relatively easy to set up and use.  The main concern is simply getting the star tracker properly aligned to the North / South Pole.  After about 30 minutes with the STP on my first night, I started to grasp how this whole process actually works.  Now that I am more familiar with star trackers, I can have it unpacked and ready to shoot within 5 minutes.

The STP includes a number of features that allow for easy alignment, including a polar scope, bubble level, latitude adjustment, and azimuth adjusting knobs.  Once you understand the basics, the SkyTracker Pro is pretty easy to use in the field.  However, the optional counterweight kit is a nightmare.  We'll talk about that more later.

The SkyTracker Pro has a built-in rechargeable battery.  It can be charged with a micro-usb cable, the same ones you use to charge your phone or many other devices with.  I love that I can charge it through my car's outlet while I'm driving to my shooting location.  However, if I forget to charge it, I might be out of luck.  The Star Adventurer Mini, for example, uses AA batteries and can therefore be used on long backpacking trips or on cold nights, without having to stop in the middle of the night to recharge.

For more information on how the STP actually works, please watch my full-length tutorial below.  It should explain everything you need to know about the STP.



The SkyTracker Pro currently retails for $280.  All things considered, that is a fair price for this star tracker.  For a comparison, the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer retails for $300, but only includes the star tracker itself.  You'll still need to buy the latitude base, which costs $65.  The SkyTracker Pro includes everything you'll need in one package.  You can also buy an optional Counterweight Kit for $80, but I would advise against it.  I cover the counterweight kit further down in the review.

Looking ahead, the SkyGuider Pro retails for $428.  The SkyGuider Pro is a much beefier setup that can handle larger cameras and lenses, and it even comes bundled with a counterweight kit.  All things considered, I would argue the SkyGuider Pro is the most cost-effective star tracker on the market.


Polar Alignment

Alignment is made very easy with the polar scope and base.  Once installed and properly focused, you can relatively quickly find the North Star and get aligned.  You'll need the Polar Finder App (Android) or iOptron's own App (iPhone) to determine the proper alignment of Polaris inside the polar scope.  Achieving an accurate Polar Alignment with the SkyTracker Pro is very easy to do, which is a huge plus for this system.

The polar scope is a great tool for accurate alignments.  I especially like how you can adjust the red LED light intensity at any time, unlike on the SkyGuider Pro.  The polar scope can also be focused to your eye, but you'll need to remove it from the SkyTracker Pro first.  

I really don't have any complaints with the STP in this department.  Even if you are just roughing the alignment, the STP does a great job at wide angles.  Without doing a precise alignment, I was able to shoot 4 minute exposures at 14mm.  I also had success shooting at 100mm for up to 60 seconds, even without properly aligning Polaris inside the polar scope.  If you are still new to star trackers, consider purchasing my full-length SkyTracker Pro Tutorial, which covers everything you need to know!


Customer Service

I've been in contact with iOptron's customer service multiple times, for different reasons.  My first contact with them was in regards to the optional counterweight kit.  There was no good information online about how to balance the counterweight on the STP.  I reached out to iOptron, hoping for some clarity.  Unfortunately, they replied with one vague sentence and told me to look in the manual at a certain image.  This was of little help.

In March, my STP randomly died on me while I attempting to photograph the Orion Nebula.  I contacted iOptron and very promptly received a reply.  I was told to open the device and try a manual fix first.  Unfortunately, it didn't fix the problem.  I was then sent an RMA number and told to enclose a $12 check with my SkyTracker (to pay for return shipping).  Within one day of receiving it, iOptron had it fixed and on its way back to me.  It's a shame that iOptron requires customers to pay for shipping both ways, and I never did learn what was fixed.  I was hoping they would at least include a piece of paper saying what they had done.  Regardless, at least the SkyTracker Pro works now.


Counterweight Kit

I hate the optional counterweight kit.  Not only is it difficult to properly use, there's really no point in purchasing it.  The STP has a weight limit of 2.6lbs without the counterweight kit.  This is enough to hold a small entry level DSLR and kit lens, or mirrorless setup.  However, if you have a full-frame DSLR and a big lens, you will have trouble using the STP, regardless of whether the counterweight kit is attached.

The counterweight kit seems like a poorly designed afterthought.  The main problem is the STP's camera mounting block (where the ballhead attaches).  It simply wasn't designed to hold a telephoto lens, and the counterweight can't change that fact.  The counterweight bar will also mar the rubber on the mounting block.

Another thing I hate about the counterweight kit is the screws.  They tend to either get stuck inside the counterweight bar or inside my ballhead.  You will need to carry a screwdriver around with you to have any chance of getting them loosened.  I also had a very close encounter using the counterweight kit.  My camera's weight caused the ballhead to unscrew itself slightly from the counterweight bar.  This caused my camera to swing around.  If I hadn't completely locked down my ballhead's arca-swiss plate, my camera likely would've fallen to the ground and been destroyed.

If your camera and lens weigh over 3lbs, save the $80 and put it towards the SkyGuider Pro instead.  The SkyGuider Pro has a better build quality and the mount is designed to handle up to 11 lbs, when properly balanced.  This weight limit is why I ultimately moved up to the SkyGuider Pro.



If you have a lightweight camera setup, and want to capture much higher quality nightscapes, the SkyTracker Pro will make an excellent addition!  The STP is lightweight, portable, and can be used on hiking or backpacking trips!  The STP is also quite modular, you can remove the base and attach it directly to a ballhead, allowing for an even more portable setup.

The SkyTracker Pro is also very easy to align.  I love how the polar scope can easily be removed, focused, and adjusted as needed.  The fast, easy alignment is my favorite part about the SkyTracker Pro.  If you buy a star tracker that is a pain to align, you will never get the sharp, detailed photos you want.

My main problem with this star tracker is simply the low weight limit.  With that said, I was able to successfully track for 4 minutes at 14mm and up to 60 seconds at 100mm, even though I was at least 1 lb over the 2.6 lb weight limit.  If you have a heavy setup, (anything over 4 pounds, including the camera, lens, and ballhead) I would advise you to skip the SkyTracker Pro.  The SkyGuider Pro is much better suited for heavier payloads.

Ultimately, the SkyTracker Pro is a nice star tracker that is limited by its weight limit.  If I could go back in time, I would have bought the SkyGuider Pro instead.  For $150 more, you get a much more robust star tracker.  The SkyGuider Pro has a better build quality, stronger mount, better designed counterweight, auto-guiding capabilities, and will scale with you as you progress in your astrophotography. 

If you want to learn how to use the SkyTracker Pro, check out my full-length SkyTracker Pro Tutorial.  This course has over 10 hours of video content that will teach you everything you need to know about astrophotography, including post-processing!

Finally, here are some of my favorite images I captured with my SkyTracker Pro!  All were taken with a Nikon D750 and either Nikon 14-24mm, Tokina 100mm, or Tamron 70-200mm.


Grand Teton NightscapeGrand Teton NightscapeThe Milky Way begins to set over the Grand Tetons, as seen near the Paintbrush Canyon Trailhead Trillium Lake - MidnightTrillium Lake - MidnightThe Milky Way shines brightly over Trillium Lake. Mount Hood can be seen in the distance The Galactic CoreThe Galactic CoreA detailed look at the Milky Way galaxy, the Lagoon Nebula and Trifid Nebula can be seen as well Andromeda GalaxyAndromeda GalaxyUsing a Tamron 70-200mm and iOptron Skytracker Pro I was able to capture the Andromeda Galaxy Rho OphiuchiRho OphiuchiThe Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) astrophotography ioptron ioptron skytracker pro review review skyguider pro skytracker pro star tracker vixen polarie Sun, 15 Apr 2018 23:48:40 GMT
What's in my Bag? I've gotten a number of questions on what gear I use, so I thought I'd share my favorite camera equipment!  As a traveling nature photographer, I need to have the right gear for the job.  That includes a great backpack, diverse lenses, a rugged camera, quality filters, and reliable camera insurance!


Camera Body

First up is the Nikon D750.  I've had this camera for almost 3 years now and it's fantastic!  With its weather sealed body, tilting rear screen, comfortable grip, and ISO-Invariant sensor, it can handle anything I want to photograph!  Whether I'm out in the mountains doing landscapes, in the desert photographing the night sky, or taking pictures of wildlife, the D750 hasn't let me down yet.

If you are using a crop-sensor body and considering the jump to full frame, do it!  I started on a Nikon D7100, a great camera, but the leap to full frame made a noticeable difference in my image quality!  As a side note, virtually every image on my website was taken with the Nikon D750. 

Milky Way over San SalvadorMilky Way over San SalvadorThe Milky Way shines above the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas Grinnell LakeGrinnell LakeGrinnell Lake landscape on a summer afternoon. Fox PortraitFox PortraitA red fox smiles at the camera BeeBee




I currently have 6 lenses: Tokina 100mm Macro, Nikon 24-70mm (Non-VR), Nikon 14-24mm, Tamron 70-200mm G2, Tamron 150-600mm, and the Sigma 35mm Art.  This lens collection covers the full range from 14mm - 600mm!  If you are considering which new lens to purchase, I'd highly recommend either a 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm.  These are the "Holy Trinity" of lenses for a reason.  Each lens fills a crucial focal length for nature photography.

When I'm living on the road, the Nikon 24-70mm is my workhorse lens.  It's the perfect focal length for taking landscape shots while I'm out hiking.  This lens is super versatile, but it doesn't necessarily excel at any one thing.  When I'm setting up my tripod for a landscape photo, I almost always have the 24-70mm on my camera first.  If I want a little more zoom though, I'll actually use the Tamron 150-600mm!  My only real problem with the Nikon 24-70mm is the soft corners.  Regardless of my aperture value, the corners are always soft.  I've tested out different copies of this lens, and they all had the same issue.  I was also able to test the new Tamron 24-70mm G2, and found that the corners were actually sharp with that lens.  If I do decided to upgrade my 24-70mm at some point, the Tamron will likely be my next lens.

Schwabacher LandingSchwabacher LandingGrand Tetons reflecting in the Snake River at Schwabacher Landing

The Nikon 14-24mm is my favorite lens for nightscapes.  The extreme wide angle allows me to capture a beautiful foreground with the Milky Way overhead.  At f/2.8 I can focus on the stars, and the foreground will also be sharp.  This is due to the increased Depth of Field at such a wide focal length.  This lens is perfect for waterfall and long exposure photography too.  You'd be surprised by how often I find myself needing that 14mm when I'm out scouting for waterfalls.  If you have a 14-24mm, or the Tamron 15-30mm, you'll need to buy a special filter holder.  I recommend the Progrey G-150Z filter holder along with Haida 150mm filters.  I have used both for the past 7 months and they each do a fantastic job.  You can read my review of the Progrey system here.  I've also done a full review of the Haida system, which you can read here.

Grand Teton NightscapeGrand Teton NightscapeThe Milky Way begins to set over the Grand Tetons, as seen near the Paintbrush Canyon Trailhead

The Tamron 150-600mm is often found on my camera when I'm traveling through a National Park.  I never know when a wild animal will pop out, so I like to have my telephoto lens ready to go!  This lens was used to capture every wildlife photo I've taken.  Believe it or not, this lens also creates stunning landscape photos.  I love how I can isolate a subject and create a unique photo.  Telephoto Landscapes are some of my favorite to photograph.  More recently, I've used it for deep-space astrophotography!  The newer Tamron G2 version of the lens has built-in Arca-Swiss plate for the tripod collar, as well as a few other improvements.  If you need a new lens for wildlife, I would look into that one!

Great Horned OwlGreat Horned OwlA beautiful Great Horned Owl seen in Colorado Great Sand DunesGreat Sand Dunes

The Tokina 100mm is a great, cheap macro lens.  The auto-focus is really slow, so I wouldn't recommend it for insects.  The lens also suffers from pretty bad Chromatic Aberration.  The Tokina is very sharp though and I have a lot of fun shooting flowers with it in the spring time.  I've even used it for astrophotography!

If you are looking for a macro lens, you need to make sure it has a 1:1 ratio.  Some lenses claim they have "macro", but they don't achieve a true 1:1 ratio.  Another thing to consider is the focal length.  A 40mm macro lens requires you to be centimeters from the subject to achieve the life-sized magnification.  With a 100mm or 200mm macro lens, you can be much further back and still get a 1:1 magnification ratio.  

HorseflyHorsefly Morning Glory FlowerMorning Glory Flower Water dropletWater droplet The Galactic CoreThe Galactic CoreA detailed look at the Milky Way galaxy, the Lagoon Nebula and Trifid Nebula can be seen as well



Backpacks / Carrying Cases

I currently use 2 hard-cases, which hold most of my camera gear.  I have a Pelican 1510 case and an SkB ThinkTank Hard Case.  These are crucial to keeping my gear safe, organized, and clean while I travel across the country.  Plus, they are both the legal limit for carry-on items when flying.  Both cases are pretty much bomb-proof, but the SKB has a really nice organizing lid.  I can keep spare batteries, chargers, memory cards, business cards, and more up there.  It's also nice to have everything organized inside a hard-case.

My favorite photography backpack, by far, is the Mindshift Rotation 180 Professional.  This is the ultimate backpack for nature photographers!  The rotating system is truly a game-changer.  Imagine you're standing in the middle of a creek, setting up to do a long exposure photo.  You can quickly rotate the entire pack around and get quick access to your gear.  The pack will also lay flat so you essentially have a table to install your filters on.  This pack is also large enough to hold a 150-600mm lens in the main compartment, with plenty of room left to spare.  There's also a rotating beltpack where you can store lenses.  If you're out hiking, you can quickly rotate the belt pack in front of you, switch lenses, and then keep on hiking.  I'm so glad I had this pack for my 2017 roadtrip, it made a massive difference!  You can read my full review of the Mindshift here.



I originally invested a lot of money in the Lee 100mm Filter System.  That included their Big Stopper, Little Stopper, Landscape Polarizer, Soft Grad ND, and filter holder.  This system did an okay job, but I was always frustrated with the heavy blue cast of the ND filters.  Also, when stacking the Big Stopper and Little Stopper, my images were always underexposed.  It turns out, the Big Stopper was actually 10 & 2/3 Stops while the Little Stopper was 6 & 1/3 Stop.  Therefore, when stacked, the filters totaled 17 Stops, not 16.  This can have a major impact when you're doing long exposures  Plus, the heavy blue cast always made editing a pain.  You can read my tutorial to learn how to test your own filters.  Frankly, I don't think I could recommend Lee Filters at this point, there are too many cheaper and better performing alternatives available now.

Once I bought the Nikon 14-24mm I needed a new 150mm filter system, since that lens does not have a filter thread.  I currently use a combination of Haida and Progrey.  Haida makes fantastic filters for a reasonable cost.  These filters have a very slight warm color cast and they clean very nicely when they get wet in the field.  I highly recommend them!  As for the 150mm filter holder, I love the Progrey G-150Z.  This really is the best 150mm filter holder on the market.  I always had it in my Mindshift pack, since I never knew when I might need it.  Ultimately, this combination of Haida and Progrey is much better than my Lee setup.  The only downside is the increased weight and much bigger size.  The 100mm filters look tiny compared to the absolutely massive 150mm filters.

Lower Panther Creek FallsLower Panther Creek FallsAnother beautiful waterfall hidden in Washington's lush forests



Tripod / Ballhead

I purchased a Gitzo Series 1 Traveler tripod when I first got into photography.  I had read all about Gitzo, and the "buy it once and be done" motto.  Instead of buying multiple cheap tripods over the years, just buy one Gitzo and be set for life!  The Gitzo tripod was not great though, and I had a lot of problems with it. 

The first problem I had was a rubber foot falling off.  I tried contacting Gitzo multiple times, through email and facebook, for a replacement part.  I never heard back from their facebook page.  I did receive 1 reply, via email, from someone in their warehouse.  However, after responding with my tripod model number, I never heard back.  Ultimately, my tripod became unstable and damaged from the lack of a rubber foot and I eventually needed to replace the entire lower leg.  Thankfully, some random person on Reddit was able to point me to a parts store where I was finally able to purchase a replacement lower leg.

Gitzo's customer service is abysmal and insulting, especially considering how expensive their tripods are.  The only good thing I could say about the Gitzo tripod is that it was lightweight.  During my 2017 roadtrip, this tripod actually broke while I was doing long exposures in a river!  Thankfully I was holding my camera, still attached to the ballhead, when the tripod fell forward into the water.  I managed to keep the camera an inch above the water while I fell down and banged up my knees on the river bottom.  That was a terrifying experience!  One entire leg broke off of the tripod and floated downstream.  Due to the pathetic customer service and poor quality of the tripod, I vowed to never buy a Gitzo again.

This is the final photo I took with the Gitzo, right before the leg broke off.

Lower Lewis FallsLower Lewis FallsLower Lewis Falls glows in the afternoon sunlight, in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

After losing the Gitzo I purchased a Feisol CT-3441T tripod.  You can watch my YouTube review here.  I really love this tripod!!  First and foremost, it's tall!  With the Gitzo, I was always hunched over when I had to use the camera.  The Feisol raises up to eye-level, and I'm 6' 3"!  Even better, this tripod is able to reach that height without a center column.  No more sore back or knees when doing tripod work!  The Feisol is also surprisingly lightweight!  It's only slightly heavier than my old Gitzo, which weighed about 2lbs.  If you're doing any hiking, the CT-3441T is a great choice!  This tripod also has foam hand grips on the upper portion of the legs.  This helps to keep a good grip on the tripod, and will stay comfortable when working in the cold with bare hands.

My ballhead has stayed the same these past 4 years.  I use an Acratech GP Ballhead.  This thing can take a beating!  I've put it through hell over the years and it still works great!  Acratech also has some of the best customer service in the industry.

I was having some issues where a big lens would cause the ballhead to slip slightly.  It was pretty frustrating to frame everything perfectly, then watch the lens sag down a bit and ruin the composition.  I contacted Acratech via email and they replied within 20 minutes, offering a free repair.  Acratech has a 10 year warranty on their products, you just need to pay for shipping.  Once I sent out my ballhead, they completely overhauled it for free and even upgraded some of the parts with their latest tech.  While the upfront cost of Acratech's ballheads is pretty steep, the quality and customer service is well worth it.

Looking for a HearbeatLooking for a Hearbeat




As a traveling nature photographer, camera insurance is a necessity!  There are so many hazards for wildlife and landscape photographers, especially when living on the road full-time.  A lot of insurance policies won't cover your gear in these scenarios.  After doing some research on reliable insurance providers, NANPA seemed to offer the best coverage for a reasonable price. 

For the past 2 years I've gotten my camera insurance through NANPA (North American Nature Photographers Association).  "The NANPA Photographers Equipment Insurance Program protects against breakage, fire, vandalism and theft (barring mysterious disappearance). It also includes extended warranty and maintenance contracts in loss assessments, and even optional blanket protection for unscheduled items under $500 in value."  You can read more about the plan here.

In my personal experience, the insurance reps are very helpful!  When I broke my tripod on the road, I contacted my insurance agent the same afternoon.  Within 2 days I was up and running with my new Feisol tripod!  It was nice to have someone in my corner during such a stressful time.  Once they verified my tripod was beyond repair, I was told to find a comparable tripod, valued at-or-below the original cost of the Gitzo, and order it.  Once I had the total cost of the new tripod, I received a check for that amount, minus the $250 deductible. 

If you don't have thousands of dollars worth of gear, this plan may be overkill for you.  It costs $350 per year, provided your total gear is valued at $15,000 or less.  If you have more than $15,000 worth of camera related gear, you will need to pay a higher annual fee.  The deductible is $250.

You will also need a NANPA membership to apply for the insurance.  A NANPA membership costs $100 per year.  There are plenty of other reasons to join NANPA including workshops, free webinars, discounts for photography related products, blogging / social media opportunities, and getting connected with fellow nature photographers.  You can see a full list of membership benefits here.

I would highly recommend a NANPA membership, along with the insurance policy, to any nature photographer!  



Picking the right laptop was a huge headache.  There are so many options, and most of them really aren't geared towards photo editing.  I needed something with an IPS screen and a matte finish.  Most new laptops are touch screen and only have glossy screens, terrible for editing.  After a month of research I found the HP Envy, which I was able to customize on HP's website.  I chose a model with a matte IPS screen, SSD, i7 processor, and 16 GBs of RAM.  I was surprised just how well it worked, even when doing intensive tasks like creating Star Trail images.  If you are planning to customize your own editing laptop, an i7 processor with a fast SSD will make a big difference in performance!

I also needed to calibrate the screen to remove any color cast.  I opted for the Spyder 5 Pro.  This monitor calibrator is easy to use and did a great job.  My laptop screen had a noticeable blue color cast, which was corrected by the Spyder.  If you plan to do any serious photo editing or printing, I highly recommend getting a color calibrator.



My favorite accessory right now is the iOptron Skytracker Pro.  This star tracker allows me to capture much higher quality nightscapes, and makes deep-space photography possible!  I can't wait to use this more in 2018, especially when I head to Utah for a month.  My main goal will be to photograph the night sky while I'm there.  I recommend all Milky Way photographers look into getting a star tracker, since they have a major impact on image quality!  You can read my star tracker tutorial here.

Unfortunately, my SkyTracker Pro died on me one night while attempting to photograph the stars.  I contacted iOptron and they responded very quickly.  Thankfully the repair was covered under their warranty, but I did have to pay for shipping both ways.  Moving forward, I will likely upgrade to a SkyGuider Pro, which can handle telephoto lenses. 

While my D750 does have a built-in intervalometer, I recently bought a Vello ShutterBoss Intervalometer.  This allows me to "set it and forget it!" when I'm using my star tracker.  In the past, I only had a wireless remote.  When I was doing tracked exposures longer than 30 seconds, I had to manually time the exposures using my smartphone.  Since I was stacking photos too, I had to stand around and time 20+ sixty second photos.  This was a major pain, especially on cold nights.  Now, I can program my desired shutter speed, even it it's 8 minutes long, and head back to my car or tent.  The Vello intervalometer does all the timing for me!  I can't wait to utilize this on my 2018 roadtrip.

I also have a Vello infrared remote, which allows me to take sharp photos on my D750.  Whenever I'm doing any long exposures, or sensitive tripod work, I can use my wireless remote to take a photo.  Using Mirror-Up Mode is critical too, this ensures that there is no camera shake at all.  When I was using my 150-600mm lens to photograph the Orion Nebula, the wired Vello ShutterBoss was causing blurry photos.  Once I used the wireless remote, in mirror-up mode, the photos were tack sharp.  If your camera supports infrared or bluetooth remotes, I'd highly recommend getting one!

Rho OphiuchiRho OphiuchiThe Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex



Looking Forward

The only other thing I would like to add to my kit is a drone.  I've seen so many stunning drone photos over the past year and I would love to begin capturing my own images.  There are a few things holding me back though.  First, the camera specs.  I love my 24 megapixel, ISO Invariant sensor.  I've become so used to that quality, I would hate to downgrade to a drone-sized sensor.  Another problem is the short battery life of drones.  Even the best drones can only fly for 30 minutes on one battery.  To make matters worse, I'll be living out of my Honda while on the road.  Which brings me to another problem: space.  My car is already jam packed, I don't know if I would even have room for a full drone setup. 

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) camera gear camera insurance haida haida filters lee filters nanpa nanpa insurance policy nature nikon nikon 24-70mm nikon d750 photography progrey progrey filters progrey g-150z sigma star tracker tamron tamron 150-600mm tokina 100mm what's in my bag? which lens to buy Sat, 24 Feb 2018 23:00:21 GMT
The Desert A New Beginning

I've now spent 6 months living on the road.  I love having the absolute freedom to go where I want, for as long as I want, with nothing holding me back.  It's how I am able to do my best work.  With my time in Colorado nearing an end, and my journey into Utah rapidly approaching, I was actually getting bored and lonely.  It didn't help that I was stuck in Durango for one week, waiting for a 70-200mm lens to arrive.  After moving around so often, a week in the same city felt like a lifetime.

Each day I would go to the Durango Library, spend all day editing, then sleep in the parking lot overnight.  I felt very out of place in the city, considering I had spent the past 2 months living out in the mountains.  For the past few weeks I had been trying to convince some friends to come out and join me for a while.  I knew my friend Sierra might actually do it, seeing as how she's lived on the road for a while too.  Next thing I know, I'm picking her up at the quaint Durango Airport.  We spent the following day hanging around Durango, it was nice to have company for a change.  The next morning, I got an email saying that the 70-200mm lens had finally arrived!  With nothing holding us back, we began our adventure into the desert!

Our first stop was Shiprock, New Mexico.  I had been here on my 2016 roadtrip, a day before meeting Sierra for the first time.  That was an incredible experience, out under the full moon, alone in the desert.  It was also one of the most dangerous portions of the trip.  I ended up getting lost driving through a maze of backcountry ATV roads in my Chevy Malibu.  I was lucky to make it back out to a major road without getting stuck!

This trip to Shiprock was quite different.  It was a beautiful, sunny day in the desert and we pulled off the road for lunch.  As we were eating some PB&J sandwiches, 2 dogs approached from the north.  At first, we were wary of them; for all we knew they were going to attack us.  Thankfully they were very friendly, and hungry too!  We gave them some food and water while they relaxed in the shade of the car. 

With that being said, Hello all it's Sierra! With the new year approaching, and in spirit of our grand adventure, we decided to collaborate both perspectives of our time with one another. As Peter stated, we had met in 2016, during my time working at Mesa Verde National Park.  After meeting Peter for the first time I was immediately drawn to his passion for photography and I had to know more, especially if this guy is even real. I thank the stars above every day to be able to say that one of my biggest inspirations is now one of my greatest friends. We met around July and by December of that year he had successfully convinced me to try and live life on the road myself, it's been one heck of a ride since!  During our friendship we had met up on both sides of the country and had always talked about the possibility of working with one another.  When it came to joining him this time, I had about a two day notice... I honestly had no idea what to expect other than I was going!

After traveling 9 months on the road from December 2016 to August 2017, I felt pretty experienced.  Little did I know how much really goes into the life of a pro photographer.  Shiprock was a great first lesson to begin the journey.  I had my mind set on peanut butter and with desert dogs approaching us I had no idea how to react...which brings me to Lesson #1: Always have your camera ready. I still wish to this day we were able to load these guys in the CR-V, to me it was definitely a test from not only Peter but, the Universe... I can say confidently we did the best we could.

Once the dogs left, we packed up and started the drive to Canyon De Chelly.  A few years ago, I was amazed by a photo taken by Ansel Adams, where the towering cliffs provide a stunning backdrop to a group of men on horseback.  Once I saw that photo, I added Canyon De Chelly to my "must see" list.  (Oddly enough, I couldn't find this image online, I was hoping to post it here.)

I was somewhat disappointed to learn the park requires the use of Native guides to actually do any real exploration.  There are a few overlooks and small hikes open to the public, but most of the park is closed off.  On one hand, that's great!  I hate seeing our National Parks completely overrun with tourists.  Still, I wish we could've seen more in our short time there.  We did hike down to the famous White House ruins, a small cliff-dwelling reminiscent of Mesa Verde.

One question... (Can-Yon Deh Chilly or Can-Yon Deh SHAY?) Here's to the park that made me find my lungs real quick. I had just flown out from Virginia where I was not very high above sea level and our first mission was hiking down into the canyons. I was amazed to see Peter going down barefoot with about 40 lbs of gear in his pack like it was nothing. This park may have not given us the complete "WOW" factor but it was a good opportunity for Peter to introduce me to what it's like to be behind the scenes. Which brings me to Lesson #2: Having the right gear isn't just what's on your back.  By the time we started making our way up and out, the soles on my old faithful hiking boots completely fell off!  These boots weren't made for just walking, but story tellin'.  Thankfully they held up with the almighty Gorilla Glue, but they surely gave me a run for my money. Peter of course couldn't help himself but to cackle at my misfortune...  With everything said and done I will say I was thankful we started the journey with some ruins, just like we did a year ago. - S 

Barefoot WonderSierra Worthington



Monument Valley

Ever since I played Red Dead Redemption, I've wanted to explore the desert.  Monument Valley, home to the famous Mitten Buttes, is easily one of the most iconic desert landscapes in the world.  I was so excited to finally see it in person, we even watched a few Western movies the night before.  Once we arrived though, things weren't quite what I expected.  Monument Valley too was controlled by the local Natives.  At the main overlook they had built a large hotel.  Down in the valley, visitors are limited to driving on a bumpy loop road, which takes about 30 minutes to complete.  Just like Canyon de Chelly, most of the park is closed off unless you are in a tour group with a guide.  At every parking area along the desert loop road, local people had setup their jewelry stands.  The views were incredible though, especially as the sun began to set.

I was really looking forward to doing some astrophotography here!  The dark sky combined with the unique rock formations would make for excellent photos!  To my disappointment, the park officially closed by 8pm.  No one was allowed to go back down in the valley after dark.  I was really starting to get tired of these restrictive policies.  To make matters worse, the hotel put out a hideous orange light that filled the valley below.  These people claim they value their natural land, yet they pollute the nighttime view with garish light.  It seems disrespectful to me.

As for myself, I had quite a different experience.  This was the first park I finally was able to see Peter truly in his environment.  I had minimal knowledge when it came to taking a "Good Shot" and I had never dabbled with astrophotography before.  I was a bit overwhelmed by how much could actually go into the luck of the shot, but happily surprised by how much info is accessible today.  There were a couple apps I quickly became associated with Stellarium and TPE (The Photographers Ephemeris) which, if you haven't heard of, I highly recommend checking out.  They give you everything from topographical maps, to showing you exactly what the sun and moon's path across the sky is, plus the sun/moon rise and set times, a complete guide of the surrounding constellations and when they can be viewed best. What an incredible tool!  I was absolutely tickled over the fact that I could even zoom in and focus on a star at this point. As for the park itself, the light pollution was a bit disappointing but for me the daylight views made up for it.  Monument Valley is known for being one of the only complete tribal run parks in the nation, having native background myself there was a certain connection I felt to the surrounding area and monuments. We were truly on sacred lands and I believe in respecting it as so, being engulfed by the monuments and knowing they used many of these sites for ritual practices it brings a sense of well-being and strong energy to oneself. One of my fondest memories of this trip is once we completed the loop we had set out a few spots we'd like to come back for sunset/sunrise, one of them being the "three sisters" which you can see photographed above. Peter was able to capture that flare only after parking in a nearby lot and full on sprinting down the road for just the right angle to even see the sun slipping behind, if we had waited another two minutes if that he would've completely missed the shot.   - S

Due to the restrictions, I decided to move on the next morning.  Our next destination was Canyonlands National Park, a few hours north of Monument Valley.  As we drove through the desert we came upon an iconic spot known as "Forrest Gump Point".  It was fun to watch people dodging cars while attempting to capture a selfie.

I'm coming for you JENNAAAAYYYYYYY! xoxo, S



Canyonlands - Needles District

After a string of disappointments, Canyonlands turned out to be an incredible adventure!  The drive to the Needles District was beautiful too!  The road followed a small creek as it cut a valley out from the rolling hills.  Newspaper Rock, a stunning petroglyph site, can be found along the way.  Once the road opened up into the desert valley, the views were magnificent!  Unfortunately, I was driving, so I didn't capture any photos along the way.

Since it was getting dark, we needed to find a campsite.  Thankfully we were on BLM land and there were a couple options.  The nearby Hamburger Rock Campground looked like the perfect spot!  While we were driving through this unique landscape, we couldn't help but be reminded of 'The Hills Have Eyes'.  It was a popular spot though, as every developed campsite was filled up.  So we kept on driving, deeper and deeper into the desert canyons.  At one point the road was so sketchy I wanted to turn around.  Thankfully Sierra convinced me to keep going.  We soon found a perfect campsite!

Now that I had the Tamron 70-200mm lens, I was excited to try some deep-space astrophotography.  Normally, I use a 100mm macro lens, which works well enough.  The 200mm made a huge difference though!  Using my star tracker, I was able to capture a ton of detail in the Orion Nebula.  

Orion NebulaOrion NebulaUsing a Tamron 70-200mm lens and an iOptron Skytracker Pro I was able to capture the Orion Nebula

We woke up early the following morning and made our way back to The Needles District.  Neither of us had done much desert hiking yet and it was radically different from anything in Ohio!  I'm used to seeing blazes painted on trees and well-defined dirt trails.  The desert has neither.  It was very disorienting trying to follow the trail out of the canyon and up onto the slickrock.  As I was hiking barefoot, I needed to be especially careful of any cacti.  We soon found our way to the top of the slick rock and had a lot of fun traversing this new environment.  I highly recommend anyone try to walk on this slick rock surface barefoot, it feels incredible!

Can you say WOW! If you're looking for a park that will take your breath away, look no further. This is just 1/3 of the districts you can explore here, I had no idea how incredibly vast Canyonlands truly is and I have to say it fits the name.  With very little trail control I was like a little kid in the candy store getting to run around this natural playground.  There were giant mushroom rocks you could skip across and they were all you could see for miles, Peter was thinking Red Dead redemption while I was more like Super Mario Bros. By this point of the trip I was finally starting to understand what Life would be like as Peter's assistant and the special lingo and tricks began to make more sense.  I always imagined Peter waving a magic wand and I want to clarify that he is in fact a descendant of Houdini but also a genius when it comes to the science of capturing light.  Peter walked me through each step of the process and I'm still baffled by his results. I'm thankful to say though with a little determination and desire to learn I finally began the process of fitting in with the pros. - S




Now that we had seen The Needles District of Canyonlands, our next destination was the Island in the Sky District.  First things first though, we needed some food!  After driving through the desert for a while, a paradise lay in front of us - Moab.  Lush, green, a stark contrast from the red rocks and dry desert scrub brush we had grown accustomed to.  After getting dinner at a crowded mexican restaurant, we headed into the desert above town to find a campsite for the night.  To my surprise, every campsite was filled here too!  We eventually found a spot alongside the dirt road and called it a night.

The following morning, we had a few top priorities.  First, find the library and get Wi-Fi.  Second, find a hostel and take a shower!  Thankfully Sierra had a line on a hostel which was popular with travelers - the Lazy Lizard.  After we had spent a few hours editing photos in the library, we headed over to the Lazy Lizard.  It turned out to be a really cool spot!  We met a ton of climbers, who were spending their days climbing the cliffs outside Moab.  One of Sierra's friends from Colorado even drove out to join us for a day!  I was just happy to finally have a shower and a comfy bed to sleep in.  While I was relaxing, Sierra was making friends with the climbers, she even got us an invite to join them the next morning.

I'm not much of a climber myself, I like keep my feet firmly planted on the ground....but I needed to get some shots for Tamron.  That meant I was climbing.  From my perch at the top of the rock wall, I was able to get some cool shots of the climbers heading up.  They made it look so easy.

Lesson #3: Sometimes you have to be willing to take risks. My mom always likes to say I've never met a stranger and in a lot of ways I think she's right. The only way I've been able to make it as far I have in life is because of the incredible beings that surround me, one of those being my special friend Joella who joined us and I have to pass along a lot of the credit to her as well for being presented this opportunity.  Peter was still adjusting to being around people again full time, and she definitely helped me with the persuasion.  With all my new excitement built up from the trip I couldn't stop blabbering to anyone who would listen.  Thank you, Audel & Jack, for inviting us to try something new. I had never been to a hostel before, surprisingly, and after this one I would consider it more often.  One of the best tips I was given when I first began on the road is to make friends with the locals and fellow travelers.  I have been shown more love and incredible sights within doing so than I ever thought possible. - S

Tied Up, Clipped InSierra Worthington




Canyonlands - Island in the Sky

Island in the Sky, an interesting name for sure.  This portion of the park sits atop a large mesa, high above the rest of the desert.  As you travel to any of the overlooks, you are treated to a stunning view of the desert canyons below.  This was easily my favorite part of the Utah trip so far!  It felt like Star Wars to me!

While there aren't many hikes in this district of the park, there is a small one to Upheaval Dome.  This unique formation was actually caused by a meteorite impact millions of years ago!  This is just one more reminder that our planet is not as safe as we like to think, every so often we are hit by cosmic debris that can radically change the course of evolution and civilization.

With sunset rapidly approaching I wanted to find the perfect overlook to enjoy it.  There was a small pull-off along the main road that looked promising.  I quickly scouted out the overlook and calculated where the sun would go down, this would be perfect!  We grabbed my Jetboil cooking stove and 2 dehydrated meals, then hiked back to the overlook.  Sierra even had downloaded some Star Wars music while we were at the visitor center, so we had some cool music to go with dinner at the overlook.  

After an epic sunset dinner, we decided to head to another overlook and wait for darkness.  I wanted to show Sierra some Milky Way photography techniques, but that all depended on the weather.  As we sat in the parking lot, waiting for Astronomical Twilight, the sky began to cloud up.  We were also surprised to see another vehicle in the parking lot, most people would have headed home by now.  Turns out, it was a fellow photographer.  He was interested in doing some Milky Way photography on this night too.  Sierra mentioned that I was a great astrophotographer and I offered to give him some tips.  After talking for a while, we realized he was also living on the road.  We had a lot more in common then I realized!

Unfortunately, the clouds kept rolling in, obscuring the galactic core.  However, the Andromeda Galaxy was still visible in the northwestern sky.  Now that I had the 70-200mm, I really wanted to get a nice photo of it.  This would also be a good time to explain Star Trackers to both Rick and Sierra.  I setup my camera to take multiple 20 second photos, which would capture a lot of detail in the galaxy.  After stacking and blending those exposures, the results were very impressive!

Andromeda GalaxyAndromeda GalaxyUsing a Tamron 70-200mm and iOptron Skytracker Pro I was able to capture the Andromeda Galaxy



Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch is arguably one of the most photographed spots in Utah.  Every morning, dozens of people crowd in front of the arch to photograph the sunrise. 

Our first attempt to photograph the sunrise did not go as planned.  We arrived at the arch about 20 minutes before sunrise, only to find a wall of people already staked out in front of the arch.  To make matters worse, there's only enough room for about 5 photographers to get "the shot".  If you aren't here super early, you're not gonna get the shot!  Disappointed, we snapped a few pics and headed back to the car. I wasn't about to give up though.  I needed to get this shot, even if that meant I was gonna sit and wait in the dark for two hours!

The next morning, I arrived at the Mesa Arch trailhead by 5am, two hours and twenty minutes before sunrise.  Of course, there was already two cars here!  Sierra wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of heading out into the cold, so I let her stay in the Honda and catch some sleep while I headed out into the night.  The trail to Mesa Arch is actually a loop; if you miss the spur trail for the arch, you'll wind up back at the parking lot.  As I was nearing the turn-off, I saw an older guy headed my way.  He said "you're already coming back from Mesa Arch?"  to which I replied, "No, I'm just leaving the parking lot".  Turns out he had missed the turn-off and gotten confused.  I tried to convince him to follow me to the arch, but he didn't believe me.  So I continued on, happy to be alone under the stars again.

After stumbling around on the rocks for a while, with just the faint starlight illuminating my path, I finally found Mesa Arch.  I saw two shadowy figures huddled next to a large bush and two tripods already setup.  After saying hello to the fellow photographers, who turned out to be very friendly, I set up my gear.  Once I had established my spot, I slowly walked around near the cliff to find a stargazing spot.

This was the first time I had been alone under the stars in quite a while.  It felt very liberating.  Since this was the autumn night sky, things had changed considerably from the start of the roadtrip.  Now Orion was high in the southern sky, and the Milky Way was falling over in the western sky.  As I stared up at Orion, Sirius kept flashing at me.  It almost seemed like it was trying to send a message.  I couldn't help but remember all the interesting things I had learned about the stars while on the road.  For example, the Great Pyramids are likely aligned to the Orion constellation.  "As above, so below."

Just as I was getting lost in thought, another headlamp approached from the west.  Apparently the old guy had finally found his way down here, nearly an hour later.  As I turned my attention back to the stars, I noticed a faint light in the east.  After doing some research, it turns out this was the Zodiacal Light.  I'd never noticed this phenomenon before, despite all of my time out in the wilderness at night.  Soon enough, more photographers started to arrive at the arch as faint light slowly started to wash out the stars.

Now it was time to get back to my camera, before someone knocked it over or tried to steal my spot.  Thankfully everyone here today was really chill and we had a nice time waiting for sunrise.  By 7am, more and more people started to show up.  There were a lot more kids than I expected to see, considering it was a Friday morning.  Turns out, Utah had given all schools this Thursday and Friday off, which explained a lot.  Perfect timing...

As the sun begin to inch over the horizon, camera shutters started clacking! 

In the heat of the shoot-out I realized that I made 2 big mistakes.  My battery was about to die and my SD card was full!  These are amateur mistakes!  I suddenly found myself rapidly deleting old photos that I didn't need, all the while realizing my battery could die at any second.  Thankfully I managed to get "the shot!"  

Mesa Arch - SunriseMesa Arch - Sunrise

Lesson #4: You have to be willing to do whatever it takes.  That is a special kind of attitude and skill set in itself. The pro's do not mess around, I may have not made it out as early as Peter but I was shocked to come down the trail and find a completely blocked off wall of photographers. I started a new fascination of taking photos of tourists and photographers in their "natural habitat."  Still intimidated and startled I might get growled at, I backed off a bit and was able to see Peter work his magic once again. He forgot to mention it was a cloudy day and the sun emerged from the clouds for about 15 seconds to capture this moment.  2 hours early, for 15 seconds. I realized quickly I had to step up my game quite a bit and find some true grit. - S



Shafer Trail

The Shafer Trail is one of the coolest backcountry roads I've ever seen!  It's a winding, narrow dirt road that takes you from the top of the mesa down into the canyon below.  After a few miles you come to a fork in the road.  One path heads further into the desert, beneath Dead Horse Point, eventually ending at a paved road outside Moab.  The other route turns into the White Rim Trail, which follows a 100 mile loop road around Canyonlands.  This is not for the faint of heart!  It can take up to 5 days to finish the whole circuit, and a high-clearance Jeep is required.  We opted to take the road back to Moab.

To our surprise, our new friend Rick joined us!  We had met Rick the night before, waiting to photograph the Milky Way.  He drove a Honda Odyssey named "Bella" and was a fellow road warrior.  I wasn't exactly sure what the road had in store for us, but I was confident the Honda CR-V could handle whatever we encountered.  The first few miles were nice and easy!  Once we took the turn for Moab though, everything changed.

The once smooth, dirt road quickly turned into a true 4wheeling road!  I was happy to have Sierra along, I always get nervous in these scenarios.  The road conditions kept getting worse and worse, at times I wasn't sure how we were going to get through without damaging something.  At least the views were nice!

Buckle up, this was so much fun!  I blared "The Final Countdown" as Peter was overly hesitant and we crawled our way down. I always knew I'd thank my parents at some point for growing up in the country with four wheelers and dirt bikes.  It was almost as if I was preparing for this moment my whole life.  This is a drive that probably 10% or less of the people that visit Canyonlands will ever witness. It was such a bizarre moment to think of standing up on top of the overlooks at the beginning staring down into the canyon to actually being down in it.  I remember making our way down and being stunned that there was actually a beautiful wide running river below us, I never would've thought. - S

Eventually we reached a calm stretch of road, with a stunning view all around.  The cracked and broken landscape stretched out before us, like it had split apart in some violent earthquake. 

Just as we were about to continue on towards Moab, Rick appeared on the horizon!  We were amazed that he had managed to get through the 4wheeling section of the road in his minivan!  We cheered him on as he pulled over next to us.  Continuing on, we occasionally stopped at some more overlooks.  At one point, Rick got ahead of us and kept on driving.  A while later we saw him headed back, we weren't sure why though.  Turns out, some people up ahead had warned him to turn back, as the road got much worse.  He didn't want to risk damaging his vehicle, so he had to make the hard choice and turn around.  We were disappointed to see him go, but we pressed on.

I was loving all the unique views out here, and more importantly, the lack of people!  4wheeling in the desert was becoming my new favorite activity on this trip!  Still, I was worried we would hit that supposedly bad stretch of road and get stuck.  After about 4 hours driving through the desert we ended up back on a paved road!  Rick could have easily handled the remainder of that desert road, especially considering he had made it through much worse at the start of the drive.  Soon enough we were back in Moab, and my next goal was Arches National Park. 



Arches National Park

Arches National Park wasn't quite what I expected.  Just like Bryce Canyon, there's a few overlooks alongside the road, and a couple small hikes.  The main attraction is definitely Delicate Arch.  I've seen so many Milky Way photos taken here, I needed to see it for myself!  Unfortunately there were a ton of tourists here, even on the off-season.  I was really getting tired of dealing with moronic tourists by now.  At least the hike up to Delicate Arch was beautiful!

As we climbed up to the Delicate Arch view, I was shocked.  In the bowl beneath us were dozens of people!  This was going to be a nightmare!  I quickly found a good vantage point, alongside about 20 other photographers.  To our dismay, every 10 seconds someone would run in the middle of Delicate Arch to get their picture taken.  There was no way we could get our sunset photos like this!  One guy got so fed up with the tourists that he started yelling!  To make matters worse, it was surprisingly cold!  We spent the next hour staked out in the "photographers' corner", waiting for the right light.  The results were mediocre.

As the temperature continued to drop, I wasn't sure what to do.  I really wanted to get the "Milky Way in the arch" shot, but I was sick of all these people.  Plus, we were both freezing and hungry.  Sierra had more fortitude than I realized, and she convinced me to wait it out and take the shot.

Unfortunately, there were still over 20 people sitting around Delicate Arch, this was going to make things difficult.  I needed 4 minutes of complete darkness to capture a detailed foreground at night.  There was no way I could achieve that with so many people randomly turning on their headlamps.  To make matters worse, there was only one spot that provided "the shot", where the Milky Way was inside the arch.  Four photographers were already perched in that spot, and I didn't want to bother them.  As soon as one of them got up and left, I stumbled down in the dark and setup.  After about 2 minutes I had taken a few different compositions I liked, so I called it a night.  Sierra and I then hiked back in the dark, trying to find our way to the car.  At least in Ohio, you can follow a trail easily enough in the dark.  Here in the desert though, it was all just rock.  No trail was visible.  We managed to find our way without too much trouble though.

Delicate Arch - MidnightDelicate Arch - MidnightThe Milky Way peaks through Delicate Arch on a beautiful October night

The next morning, we stopped at Double Arch, one of the most unique arches in Utah.  We had a lot of fun climbing around beneath the arches, while I tried to find an interesting composition.  I'll be headed back to Utah in 2018, and I look forward to seeing Double Arch again!

Double ArchDouble ArchThe impressive Double Arch in Arches National Park, Utah.



Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is another one that's not for the faint of heart.  The most beautiful locations here are very hard to reach, requiring 4wheel drive and good weather conditions.  My main goal was to check out the Temple of the Moon, in the remote northern area of the park.  According to the park map, there's a 60 mile loop through the desert; about 20 miles in lies the Temple of the Moon.  Once we filled up our water bottles at the Visitor Center we headed for a nearby petroglyph site.  After a brief look at the ancient markings, we made our way back out into the desert, hoping to find the backcountry road that would take us to the Temple of the Moon.  

This wasn't as easy as I expected.  We couldn't actually find the dirt road, there was no clear sign indicating when to turn off the main highway.  Eventually we found a random dirt road heading off into the desert.  Looking at the park map, this was probably it.  To make things even more confusing, the road quickly came to a fork.  There were no signs to help with our decision.  I figured the fork heading due north was our best bet, so we pressed on.

Having spent 6 months living on the road, traveling down all kinds of rough backcountry roads, I was used to washboards.  This was a whole new level though!  The washboard road was so much worse than anything I had encountered before, so I was stuck going 10 miles an hour for quite a while.  I was not looking forward to driving back out of here...

Just as the golden hour began we saw the Temple of the Sun in the distance!  Upon arriving at the desert monoliths, our first goal was to capture some cool photos.  As more color filled the sky we got started on cooking dinner.  Today we were having spaghetti, with 'marinara sauce', which tasted more like ketchup.  Still, it was really good!

Lesson #5: Utilize the amenities presented.  Whether the Visitor Center or local library, make sure you fill up your water before and utilize the park maps.  Also talking to a Ranger for 5 mins. can make a world of difference, remember that's what they are there for. - S

Since we were at the Temple of the Moon, I had to take some nightscapes here!  However, the galactic core was now too far below the horizon to do any Milky Way photos, so I had to try something different.  My new technique for Milky Way images is to take a 4 minute exposure for the foreground, and a 4 minute exposure of the sky.  When I take the sky photo, I mount the camera on a star tracker.  This device moves the camera around at the same speed as the stars, allowing me to take a much longer photo without star trails.  Then, I blend the two exposures to create one high-quality image.  The alternative is to take one 20 second photo and call it a night.  While easier and quicker, this results in grainy photos. 

Temple of the SunTemple of the SunThe Milky Way over the Temple of the Sun in Capitol Reef National Park

After trying a few different compositions, I figured a star trails image would look pretty cool!  Plus, I could set out my camera overnight and let it do all the work.  I had enough battery life to last maybe 3 hours, so I set my camera's intervalometer to take 500 photos, each 20 seconds long.  This would show the movement of the stars over the course of a few hours.  The final results were pretty cool!

This is definitely a park where half the show is at night!  This was by far the clearest sky I have ever witnessed, you were truly swimming in the stars. We even witnessed a GPS Satellite reflect the sun, which for those that have never seen it happen, looks almost like someone just took a flash photo of the world.  I was honestly startled by this, but thanks to Peter, he put that curiosity to rest and we were able to watch it happen a couple more times.  I'd call it one of the most magical nights of the trip, how could you not when swimming in the stars sleeping right next to the temple of the moon? - S

Temple of the Moon - Star TrailsTemple of the Moon - Star TrailsA colorful Star Trails image over the Temple of the Moon

The following morning we drove further into the desert.  There was a massive sinkhole a few miles further in, so we couldn't pass up the chance to see it.  While cool to see, there wasn't much to photograph.  At this point we had to make a decision.  Either turn around and drive 20 miles across the horrible, washboard road, or drive further into the desert.  That meant we would complete the entire 60 mile loop and see some more amazing views in the Cathedral Valley.  "Let's do it."

Just as we were nearing the main highway, our trip came to an unexpected halt!  A fast moving river lay ahead of us.  To make matters worse, we had to actually drive up the river to get to the other side of the road.  The Honda had survived everything I'd thrown at it, but this was on a whole new level.  My first step was to determine the depth of the river, so I got out of the car and started walking through it!  I wanted to see where the deepest parts were and what the bottom of the river was made of, sand or rock.  Thankfully it wasn't as deep as I feared and the river bottom was covered in rocks.  Still, this could end in disaster.

Of course, I couldn't pass up an opportunity to record this experience.  I grabbed my camera gear and walked to the far side of the river.  Either I would record us successfully fording the river, or I would have a hit YouTube video of a Honda CR-V being swept away.

Meanwhile a truck driver had already paused his lunch and had his tow straps getting ready...Honda you proved me wrong.  Here's to the #CosmicCruiser - S




Zion National Park

Zion was the final destination of our Utah adventure.  Frankly, I wasn't expecting much, but Sierra had been looking forward to seeing Zion for years.  Once I got the park map, I began planning out the next few days.  I was immediately shocked by how small the park actually is.  There's only one real road in the park, and it's a bus loop.  That was going to cause some problems.  I don't like to be restricted, especially when I need to be at a location for sunrise, sunset, or for Milky Way photos.  The only real place to park was the visitor center, at the southern entrance of the park.  I was shocked at just how crowded it was, the sprawling parking lot was nearly completely filled!

Eventually we found a parking spot and walked over to the visitor center to check on permits and hiking recommendations.  After talking with the rangers, we decided to do two hikes - The Narrows and Angel's Landing.  I was really looking forward to The Narrows hike, where you walk up a stream for miles through a stunning slot canyon.  Sierra was much more interested in the Angel's Landing hike, which takes you up one of the most dangerous trails in America.  

Since it was already too late in the afternoon to go on any real hikes, I drove us back up to the eastern side of the park.  From there, we did a short hike to the Canyon Overlook, a beautiful spot to watch the sunset.  While we sat and enjoyed the view, another photographer was there shooting some wedding portraits.

Lesson #6 Balance. Sometimes it's okay to put the camera down. I have been waiting for this very moment. Take a deep breath, we made it. -S

The next morning we caught an early bus shuttle to the start of the Angel's Landing hike.  It started off easy enough, along the shores of the Virgin River.  Within 15 minutes though, we found ourselves climbing up a staircase carved out from the rock walls.  I was glad we had started this hike early in the morning, this would be brutal in the middle of the day!  To my surprise, Sierra was actually a lot faster on the inclines than me, they didn't even seem to faze her!  She was bouncing up the steep hillside while I was huffing and puffing.  After about 30 minutes we came to Walter's Wiggles, where the trail turns into a series of short, steep switchbacks.  It turns out there's 21 switchbacks in this one spot!  As we reached the end of the last switchback we found ourselves at the top of the mountain.  Then I realized this was just the beginning!

With the easy portion of the hike concluded, we now had to face the iconic Angel's Landing hike.  This YouTube video does a pretty good job showing off just how scary the hike was.

Once we finally reached the top of Angel's Landing, we were surrounded by an incredible view of the Zion valley.  One of the hikers up there with us had a drone, which captured some awesome footage.  Thanks to Alejandro Vizio for the great video!

The next morning we caught an early shuttle up to The Narrows.  The drive up was beautiful, and I could actually enjoy it for once!  The towering peaks around us were lit up in the early morning light.  After a 40 minute ride we arrived at the parking lot for The Narrows.  From here, it was a 10 minute walk to the actual 'real hike', where the trail enters the river.  Hopefully I wouldn't break my new tripod or destroy my gear this time...

The water was cold, but not as frigid as I expected!  I wore my Luna Sandals for this trip, which are perfect for river walking.  Most people choose to rent some special boots with gaters for this hike.  Sierra didn't seem too excited to get her only pair of boots completely soaked.

Sierra Worthington

Thankfully we had started the hike at the right time!  Beautiful golden light was falling into the canyon around us.  At one point, the entire wall next to us was shimmering gold!  We hiked for close to 3 hours up the river, with the light getting progressively more harsh.  I was super thankful to have my Mindshift rotation180 pro with me on this hike!  I got this pack earlier in 2017 and it's made a huge difference!  I can actually rotate the entire pack around, giving me a portable workstation even in the middle of a stream!  This is crucial for long exposure photography!  Plus, it holds all of my gear, even the 150-600mm!  If you're looking for a new backpack, definitely check out Mindshift!

The NarrowsThe NarrowsHiking through The Narrows in Zion National Park

Before leaving Zion, I had to get the iconic Watchman photo.  I was originally going to photograph it after the Angel's Landing hike, but I was surprised to see over a dozen people already there, waiting for sunset.  The viewpoint is actually on a narrow bridge over the Virgin River, with limited spots available for photographers to setup.  The following day, after hiking through the Narrows, we arrived at the bridge 3 hours before sunset.  Did I mention parking is extremely limited here?  We were lucky to find one open spot.

Peter was right, I have been waiting for this for years and the park was everything and more that I could of hoped for and I look forward to going back and exploring more. This was the hardest Junior Ranger Badge I have ever worked for and I was most definitely tested on what I could handle. This brings me to Lesson #7: Be Mindful, Always. 

With our trip coming to an end, I want to take a moment to say thank you. If you're open to learn and willing to put in some work you'd be surprised how much can happen in a month.  I thought I knew what life on the road was like but my time with Peter was so drastically different. Thank you for helping me gain a greater perspective, and to you, the reader, thank you for all your support along the way. We may not have it all together but together we have all.  Before making our way east we stopped at the Grand Canyon to hangout with some good friends that I had first began out on the road with.  I'm so overcome with gratitude that I was able to be with not only the person that inspired me to go out on the road but also the ones who made it happen.  Thank you all for the lessons and abundant amount of love always. Till we cross paths again! - S



The Journey Home

Before starting the long, boring drive back home, I wanted to make one last stop.  Great Sand Dunes National Park, in southern Colorado, is one of my favorite parks.  It's home to some of the darkest skies in the country and an otherworldly landscape.  Great Sand Dunes was actually the very first place I visited on my first backpacking trip out west, back in 2012.  My friend Joe and I spent a night camping and then hiking through the dunes.  I returned in 2014 and 2016 to photograph the Milky Way for a few nights.  Surprisingly, I was offered a spot at the Great Sand Dunes visitor center to hang one of my photos for the 2017 season.  I couldn't head back to Ohio without checking it out.

Since the visitor center was closed when we arrived, Sierra and I went for a quick hike in the sand dunes.  I was not prepared for how cold it was though.  Medano Creek was covered in ice and a bone-chilling wind was blowing across the dunes.  At least we warmed up quickly running through the sand.

After checking out the visitor center, it was time to begin the long drive back across America.  After 3 months living out of my car, traveling all over the Western US, I was ready to come home.  Thankfully I had my co-pilot Sierra this time around.

One last surprise from the roadtrip was being featured by Tamron in their e-news article.  I remembered reaching out to them while I was in Colorado using the 150-600mm lens a lot.  I really wanted to do a collaboration on a Telephoto Landscapes article.  Surprisingly, they contacted me back and offered to send me that loaner 70-200mm lens, which I used for the rest of the roadtrip.  

Join us on our adventure in the video below - 

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) arches national park arizona astrophotography canyon de chelly canyonlands national park capitol reef national park desert landscape photography monument valley nature nikon photography shiprock tamron utah zion national park Tue, 16 Jan 2018 15:14:16 GMT
Autumn in the Colorado Mountains Steamboat Springs

By mid-September I arrived in Steamboat Springs, a beautiful mountain town in northern Colorado.  I had heard wonderful things about this spot from many people so I was excited to finally explore the nearby aspen forests!  As usual, I stopped at the library to download my maps, scout out the surrounding area, and fill up my water.  As the sun began to set, an afternoon storm erupted over downtown Steamboat Springs.  This could get interesting!  I glanced out the window and saw a stunning rainbow arching overhead!  I quickly packed up and ran to the car.

Steamboat Springs RainbowSteamboat Springs Rainbow

After the excitement died down and the rainbow disappeared, I remembered I needed to find a place to spend the night.  It looked like the National Forest was just north of town.  It was a stunning drive as the open fields quickly transitioned to aspen forests and steep hillsides.  Within five minutes of leaving town the paved road ended, transforming into a winding, narrow, and bumpy dirt road.  Driving into the mountains was slow-going and I was losing light quickly.  As twilight arrived, I found a nice westward vantage point.

Five minutes later I reached a campsite, nothing more than a large dirt area to park the Honda.  This would become my home-base for the next few days.  With a long day behind me, I was ready for a good night's rest!  I had actually started this day off near Salt Lake City, up in the Wasatch Mountains.  After enjoying a beautiful sunrise, I spent the rest of the day driving through rural Utah and Colorado.  It felt good to finally relax in the back of the car.  Within 20 minutes I was fast asleep.

At 3am I awoke to the sounds of something scratching, just below my head!!  I should clarify that I have enough space in the Honda to setup a mattress in the back, where I spend most of my nights sleeping.  Whatever I was hearing must have been underneath the car.  I was worried it might break something, so that meant I needed to get out and confront it.  Great...

I opened the door and jumped out from the vehicle, hoping to land far enough away so that the unidentified critter couldn't immediately attack me.  I turned around and shined my light under the car.  Nothing.  Then, I spotted something moving in front of the Honda.  It was a porcupine scratching at a nearby log.  He didn't seem to mind me at all, he was far too busy trying to reach his midnight snack inside the log.  I let him be and went back in the car, hoping to get a few more hours of sleep without any further interruptions.

The morning arrived quickly and I was excited to see this place in the daylight!  I was surrounded by stunning aspen forests!  My view to the west provided a great vantage point and I could see for miles!  A quick breakfast, one plain bagel and some water, and I was ready to hike.  I spent the next few hours hiking down the mountain through the aspen forests.  Most of the trees were still green but a few had started to change.

I decided that this would be the perfect spot to sit and wait for the rest of the fall colors to arrive!  For the next week I explored the forests in the mountains outside of Steamboat Springs, eagerly awaiting the changing colors.  I quickly fell in love with this aspen forest.  "Towering white columns, covered in eyes".  

My view from camp, in the mountains outside Steamboat Springs Hiking through the aspen forest near Steamboat Springs A close-up look at Aspen bark Relaxing in the forest on a beautiful September day

Within a few days, it became clear the leaves were not going to change soon enough.  I still had the rest of Colorado to explore and September was quickly nearing its end.  I had to make a difficult decision.  It was time to leave.  I couldn't afford to miss out on the fall colors that were already occurring further south.  On the final morning in Steamboat Springs we had the first snow of the season!  It was like Christmas!  By 7:30am I was already back up in the mountains to the north of town, enjoying this brief winter wonderland.

Unfortunately, the snow quickly melted in the morning sunlight.  By the time I hiked back to the car there was almost no snow left.  Energized and excited, I was ready to start the long drive to my next destination: Guanella Pass.  Within 30 minutes of leaving Steamboat Springs I was seeing yellow aspen trees everywhere!  The drive through northern Colorado was absolutely incredible!  Vast fields stretching off into the distance, towering mountains, flashes of yellow in the sunlight.  These memories are still burned into my mind, even though I wasn't able to capture any photos along the way.

To view all the photos from Steamboat Springs, click here -


Kenosha Pass

I had heard from a friend that Kenosha Pass was looking incredible, so I made that my next major destination.  As the sun was beginning to set I finally arrived at Kenosha Pass.  I quickly grabbed my gear and started on a hike into the forest.  Honestly, I liked the aspen trees in Steamboat Springs a lot better.  But the fall colors were a nice change!  Since the lighting wasn't great, I ended up just enjoying the hike without taking any photos.

The forecast was calling for a clear night and this was one of the darker areas in Colorado.  If I was remembering right, there was an incredible overlook within a 5 minute drive.  This would be the perfect place to use my star tracker and capture a high-quality Milky Way photo!  I parked the car on a gravel pull-off and began setting up my gear.  The star tracker allows me to take much longer photos, without any motion blur in the stars.  Therefore, I can capture much more detail with less grain!  If you're interested in learning more about these devices, head over to my tutorial.

Kenosha PassKenosha PassThe Milky Way rises over Colorado, as seen from Kenosha Pass.



Crested Butte

Crested Butte is renowned for its spring wildflower season, when the nearby mountains are covered in columbine, indian paintbrush, fireweed, elephant's head, and more!  I first visited Crested Butte in July 2016, on my first roadtrip.  I was amazed by just how many wildflowers there were on my hike over the mountains to Maroon Bells!  Believe it or not, Crested Butte is even more magical in the fall!  I was lucky to arrive just in time for the first major snowfall in the mountains.

Upon arriving in Crested Butte, I quickly got lunch then headed up into the mountains north of town.  If you're looking for a scenic fall drive, this is the spot!  The dirt road twists through stands of aspens before entering a large river valley.  After passing through the tiny "town" of Gothic, the road starts to get more treacherous.  I was glad to have all-wheel drive this time around!  At one point, the road becomes very narrow with a sheer cliff on one side.  I always hate this part!  Thankfully no one was coming, so I was able to make it through quickly.  My destination was ultimately Crystal Mill, one of the most iconic landmarks in Colorado.  However, this dirt road would become even more dangerous in a few miles and the sun was about to set.  At dusk, I came to a large yellow sign which said, in effect, "If you don't have a Jeep and off-roading skills, stop here or die".  Thankfully there was a little dirt parking lot here, so I parked the car for the night.  Tomorrow I would hike the rest of the way down to Crystal Mill.

That's my cue to start walking

A mountain view near Gothic

It was a cold, cloudy morning; perfect for waterfall photography!  The hike down to Crystal Mill was an incredible 3 mile trek through the mountain valley.  The entire hike down I couldn't stop thinking "how can anyone actually drive down this?!".  I'm glad I decided to walk!!  Occasionally the road would cross through the creek, which was frigid this time of year!  At other times, the road was just a jumble of large rocks.  Within 40 minutes I arrived at the first landmark, Devil's Punchbowl.  I distinctly remembered this spot, as I had read there were numerous fatalities here.  Click here to read all about that.  

Hiking down the rough road to Crystal Mill

Devil's PunchbowlDevil's Punchbowl

After about an hour hiking down the valley, I finally encountered my first vehicle.  A guy in an older jeep was heading up into the mountains, so I squeezed off into the trees to get out of the road.  "BANG!!!"  I nearly had a heart attack!  Apparently, his back tire hit a metal pole and popped right in front of me!  I was worried he would be stuck up here, but he didn't seem concerned at all.  I asked if he needed a hand, but he was fine.  So I continued on down the trail.

As I neared the remote mining town of Crystal I found myself in another aspen forest.  I was surprised to see a lot of green trees here as well, but fall was definitely in full swing!  Soon enough I came to the iconic Crystal Mill, apparently one of the most photographed locations in Colorado.  With that being said, I wanted to get a more unique angle than most.  That meant getting wet.  I clambered down the steep hillside and into the cold water.  No one else was willing to brave the frigid waters, so I had the whole creek to find a great angle!

Crystal MillCrystal Mill Before beginning the long, steep climb back to the car I wanted to grab some shots in town...a town which consists of 5 houses anyway.  The fall colors were incredible down here!

And with that I was ready to continue the arduous hike!  The trek back up the mountain valley was grueling, especially considering I only had one CliffBar to eat.  Looking at my topo map, it appeared I had a 1,500 foot elevation gain back to the car. 

Eventually I got back to the Honda and started the long, bumpy drive back to Crested Butte.  I was looking forward to a good dinner!  As I pulled into town my phone finally got an LTE connection.  I decided to check the weather.  The forecast was calling for a winter storm the following day.  Perfect!!  However, I wanted a change of scenery.  I quickly decided that Maroon Bells would be the best location to enjoy the winter storm.  However, that didn't leave me a lot of time; I needed to start the 4 hour drive ASAP!  There's really nothing like driving through the mountains of Colorado at sunset!  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture any photos along the way.  By 9pm I had made it to Aspen, which is a short drive from Maroon Bells.


Maroon Bells

If you ever plan to go to Maroon Bells, be warned, it's almost always overrun with tourists!  The road leading up to Maroon Bells is normally closed from 8am to 5pm, meaning you'll need to park at a ski resort just outside Aspen and ride a free bus up to the park.  That wasn't going to work for me, so I kept driving to Maroon Bells in the dark.  To my surprise, I found a number of other photographers out there in the middle of the night!  We were all interested in capturing some nightscapes.  Thankfully we had clear skies!  Unfortunately, the other photographers were quite rude.  I needed to take a 4 minute long photo, to capture enough light for the foreground.  Each time, someone would turn on their headlamp and ruin the shot.  However, the following night I was able to finally capture an image.  I accidentally left the ISO at 12,800 though, causing the image to become way too bright.

By 4am the next morning, people were already starting to fill the parking lot!  Some had come from as far away as Denver.  Since the sun wouldn't be up for a few more hours, I went back to bed.  I woke up about 30 minutes before sunrise and found myself surrounded by cars!  The entire parking lot was full!  I trudged out to the lake shore and was shocked.  There had to be at least 100 people completely filling every square foot along the shore of the lake, all hoping to capture the typical Maroon Bells photo.  After searching for 10 minutes I managed to squeeze into a spot with a nice view.  I hate this part of photography, I get too frustrated dealing with moronic tourists and can't concentrate on taking a great photo.  At one point, some lady cut in front of our small group to take her coveted cell phone shot.

As the crowds began to thin out along the lake, I started scouting for new angles of Maroon Bells.  Everyone gets the iconic lake shot, but I wanted something different.  Thankfully the weather was cooperating!  As the dark storm clouds billowed over the mountains, occasional bursts of light would shine down onto the landscape.  I spent the next few hours exploring this incredible place, waiting for the snowstorm to begin.  By 11am it started sleeting, and within 20 minutes I was completely soaked!  My camera is weather-sealed but this was getting a bit too much.  I decided to head back to the car and wait out the storm.

Maroon Bells StormMaroon Bells Storm

Once I got back to the car I wiped down my camera gear and cranked up the heat.  I needed to dry everything out and warm up!  In the meantime, the weather was only getting worse.  The sleet had now changed to snow and it was coming down heavy!  I looked out through my windows and saw that the parking lot had finally emptied.  With not much else to do, I got comfy in the back and started watching 'The Lord of the Rings'.  I spent the next 5 hours sitting in the car, occasionally glancing back up to see if the mountain peaks were breaking through the clouds.  I didn't mind the wait, knowing that the mountains would look incredible once the clouds began to clear!

Finally!  After 6 hours of waiting in my car, I caught a glimpse of the mountains peeking through the clouds.  I raced to put on my winter clothes and boots.  Then I grabbed my camera gear and sprinted out to the lake.  It was like Christmas morning!  The view was amazing, and even better, there was no one else around!  I had the entire place to myself.  This was my "Quintessence of Life" moment, for those of you who are familiar with 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'.

Maroon Bells SnowstormMaroon Bells Snowstorm

As sunset was rapidly approaching, more and more people started to arrive.  I figured I should get a spot along the lake shore, before the inevitable horde arrived.  Little did I know, this would be one of the best sunsets of the roadtrip! 

Maroon Bells SunsetMaroon Bells SunsetA beautiful autumn sunset at Maroon Bells

I had taken so many pictures in one day that I actually filled up both memory cards.  I needed to transfer them to my laptop and get set for the next day.  The forecast was calling for a beautiful sunny day, so I decided to stay one more morning at Maroon Bells.  This time I wasn't even going to bother fighting for a spot along the lake.  I get so frustrated when a beautiful sunrise is ruined by tons of people.  So I hiked further into the forest, hoping to find a good composition that didn't include the iconic lake.  While the composition might not have been as good, it was wonderful to finally be alone here at sunrise.

Once the sunrise crowd had left, I wandered back to the lake shore, hoping to get a different take on Maroon Bells.  It was interesting to see how different this scene could be depending on the weather.

Morning at Maroon BellsMorning at Maroon Bells

And with that, I was ready to start the long drive back to Crested Butte!  The drive back was breathtaking, Colorado is one of my favorite states to drive through.  I only wish I had a self-driving car so that I could actually enjoy the view more!  With the sun slowly starting to set, I was nearing McClure Pass.  On my way to Aspen, I had noted how incredible the view was from here.  This might make the perfect location for sunset!  I pulled off the road at the top of the pass just in time!  The mountains were covered in the beautiful pink alpenglow!  Using my 150-600mm lens allowed me to zoom in on these distant mountains.  

McClure PassMcClure PassAn alpenglow sunset from McClure Pass


Kebler Pass to Crested Butte

Kebler Pass is home to one of the largest living organisms on the planet, the aspen forest.  Aspen trees are actually clones, all derived from a single seed.  I had driven through the forest twice now, and each time I felt a magical energy here.  Kebler Pass is also world-renowned for its fall colors.  Unfortunately the fall colors were lagging here as well, so it looked more like summer.  That didn't stop me from enjoying it though!  I spent a few days camped out amidst the aspens.  There wasn't much to do in the way of photography, with the beautiful sunny skies and green forests.  This would be a quick break then, a time to relax and enjoy the forest.

After spending a few days living amongst the aspen trees I was ready to head back to Crested Butte, just a short drive away.  I knew the fall colors were in full-swing down there and I couldn't let that opportunity pass.  Thankfully I was blessed with another snow storm!  The storm had hit the mountain peaks overnight, leaving them covered in fresh snow!  By 7am I was out in the valley, photographing the mountains as the clouds swirled around them.  It felt like Christmas again! 

I was excited to see how different everything looked, compared to just a few days ago, so I began the drive back into the mountains north of Crested Butte.  The dirt road was now a muddy mess!  The mud was so thick I was worried I would lose traction and slide off the road.  At least no one else was out yet and I had the road to myself...or so I thought.

As soon as I passed through Gothic I started seeing cows, hundreds of them.  They were all headed south, towards Gothic.  There must have been at least 1,000 cows out here, all headed in the same direction!  At times, they would cover the entire road.  Making matters worse, their hooves were tearing up the wet, muddy road.  At one point, the road was in such terrible condition I lost all control and began sliding down-hill.  The mud was so thick my tires were locked up, almost like driving through thick snow, with ice underneath.  I managed to stop the Honda before it ran off the road.  That was enough excitement for me.  Having gotten enough photos, I started the drive back to Crested Butte, listening to Christmas music along the way.

Click here to visit my Colorado Gallery, with even more pics from Crested Butte! -



Telluride - The Grand Finale

Telluride was one of my favorite locations of my 2016 roadtrip.  It's a beautiful mountain town, which really emanates that "Colorado vibe" that people are seeking.  There's ample opportunities here for skiers, hikers, photographers, 4wheelers, climbers...basically everyone who enjoys the outdoors!  I was excited to see it in the fall though, with the yellow aspens and hopefully some snow!

As I was driving into Montrose I looked over to my left.  I was stunned!!  Way off in the distance I could see the Dallas Divide and all the mountains were covered in snow!  This would be perfect!  After a quick stop at Arby's, I raced towards the mountains, hoping to arrive before sunset.  I got there just in time!  Of course, the overlook was filled with people already.  Even though the sunset colors were mainly obscured by clouds, the view was incredible!  I had been waiting for this moment for years!

Mount SneffelsMount Sneffels

Since the Dallas Divide overlook is just off a major road, with a good amount of truck traffic, I wanted to find a quieter spot to spend the night.  I knew Last Dollar Road was close by, so I made that my next destination.  With the full moon lighting my way, I found a beautiful, quiet spot to spend the night.  As I was packing up for the night, I could hear the elk bugling off in the distance.  I love hearing their calls at night.

Last Dollar Road is one of the most scenic drives in Colorado, and that's saying a lot!  Just like Schofield Pass outside Crested Butte, Last Dollar Road isn't for the faint of heart.  When the dirt road is wet it becomes incredibly slick.  Not only that, massive puddles tend to form in the middle of the road.  I actually had conquered most of this drive in my little Chevy Malibu last year, but it was nice having all-wheel drive this time around. 

Starting near Last Dollar Ranch, I followed Last Dollar Road through the countryside, into the forest, and up into the mountains.  Meanwhile, massive storm clouds began to blow in from the south.  This had me worried.  I didn't want to get stuck up on top of the mountain in a bad storm, especially on this muddy road.  My new goal was to make it back to the "tame" section of Last Dollar Road before the storm began.

My luck had run out.  The rain began to pour down while I was driving on the sketchiest section of the road.  Apparently all this time spent on backcountry roads has helped though, as I was able to navigate back down without any real issue.  

Last Dollar RoadLast Dollar Road Deep in the forest, driving along Last Dollar Road Last Dollar Road - AutumnLast Dollar Road - AutumnDriving down Last Dollar Road, on the way to Telluride Colorado

Just before sunset I came to a campsite overlooking the valley.  In 2016 I spent a few nights up here, watching as the lightning exploded over the landscape.  It had been Monsoon Season then, so every night I was treated to a stunning show.  Now however, it was a peaceful and colorful sunset.  The next morning, I continued on to Telluride.

Of course, my first order of business was to head to the Telluride Library.  I had some business to take care of and tons of photos to edit.  After spending the whole day inside the library, I was shocked when I stepped outside.  All the mountains surrounding town were covered in fresh snow!  Low-hanging clouds filled the valley around Telluride.  Though the light was fading fast, I wanted to get at least one photo.  I hurried back to the car and drove up into the mountains east of town.

Downtown TellurideDowntown TellurideA photo from the center of Telluride, looking to the snow-capped mountains in the east. Outside of Telluride, near Bridal Veil Falls

As I sat in my car, overlooking Telluride, I couldn't stop thinking about the view from the Dallas Divide.  I really wanted to go back and take some more photos.  Once the sun came up I would start the long, bumpy drive along Last Dollar Road.  I ended up spending 3 more days out there, enjoying every minute of it!

Last Dollar RanchLast Dollar Ranch During my final journey along Last Dollar Road, heading back to Telluride I spotted something large on a nearby tree trunk.  It was starting to get dark, so I didn't recognize what it was at first.  Then I realized it was a gorgeous Great Horned Owl!!  Owl's are my favorite animal and I've only seen a few in the wild.  This was the second time I'd ever seen a Great Horned Owl.  I was lucky to have my camera sitting up front with me, and the telephoto lens was on too!  I started snapping photos while the owl looked at me sleepily.  She didn't seem to mind my presence at all.  This was one of the highlights of the entire roadtrip, I felt so honored to encounter this beautiful bird.

Great Horned OwlGreat Horned OwlA beautiful Great Horned Owl seen in Colorado

What an amazing experience!  This was the perfect way to end my time along Last Dollar Road.  The following morning I completed another journey down the road to Telluride.  Since it was supposed to be a warm and sunny day, I wanted to check out Mountain Village.  There is a free gondola that takes visitors from Telluride up to Mountain Village.  The views along the way are spectacular, especially this time of year.  From the top of the ski-lift area you can get out and hike or bike back down to Telluride.  I got out to snap some pics, before continuing on to Mountain Village.

TellurideTellurideLooking down at Telluride from the free gondola to Mountain Village

For the past few days I really hadn't been eating much at all, and I was looking forward to a good meal.  Using Google Maps to find the best restaurant in town,  I was torn between two options.  As it turned out, I was so hungry that I had lunch at both places!  With a full belly I was ready to head back to Telluride.  Unfortunately I don't get cell-reception in town, so I need to drive out near the airport for any reception.  I ended up staying out there the rest of the night.  Just before bed I saw the full moon rise over the mountains, it was an incredible sight with my telephoto lens!

I awoke early the next morning, it looked to be another beautiful day!  Since I was in the area, I couldn't pass up an opportunity to visit Rico Hotsprings, a hidden gem outside of Telluride.  I was first introduced to this magical spot when I made friends with some people who worked at the nearby National Park, Mesa Verde.  Having been on the road for over 2 months now, spending almost every night sleeping in my car, I was looking forward to a nice long soak.  The hot spring water felt amazing, especially on this chilly fall morning.  After relaxing in the spring for an hour I was ready to go for a hike in the mountains nearby.  Lizard Head Peak had been calling to me, so I decided to make that my destination for the day.  It was a steep, arduous hike up into the mountains.  It didn't help that the mountain pass was at 10,000 feet.  Being a native Ohioan, I was still not accustomed this altitude.  

Rico HotspringsRico Hotsprings Lizard Head PeakLizard Head PeakHiking through the snow to Lizard Head Peak

By this point October was well underway.  I had planned my trip to spend most of October exploring Utah, so I was feeling the urge to keep driving south.  As much as I loved Colorado, it was time to move on.  After one last day in Telluride I started the drive over to Ouray.  Ouray is home to one of my favorite hidden gems, the Wiesbaden Hotsprings.  You walk down into the basement of a spa and see an old wooden door in the wall.  Inside is a dimly lit cavern.  Even in the winter it's incredibly hot and humid down here.  Apparently the miners would come here to relax after a long day at work.  Though I found it hard to breath in the incredibly hot and humid cave, it was very relaxing.  Plus, I got to take a shower, which I desperately needed.  Now that Ouray was checked off my list, my final destination in Colorado was Durango.

After spending two months alone on the road, I was surprised to hear one of my friends was willing to join me for the remainder of the trip!  I had met her last year on my roadtrip, just outside Durango oddly enough.  It seems our paths were destined to cross here again.  I also had a loaner lens set to arrive in a few days.  Tamron was kind enough to send their new 70-200mm lens for me to try out and capture some images with.

When I first arrived in Steamboat Springs at the start of my Colorado journey, I never would've guessed just how incredible my time here would be.  It was bittersweet to leave Colorado behind, but the Utah desert was calling!

- Click here to see even more images from the Telluride area! -



[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) aspen forest autumn colorado crested butte crystal crystal mill dallas divide devils punchbowl fall colors gothic hiking kebler pass last dollar road lizard head pass maroon bells mcclure pass mount sneffels nature photography nikon photography schofield pass snow steamboat springs tamron telluride Tue, 28 Nov 2017 00:26:57 GMT
Mindshift rotation180 Professional Review Mindshift rotation180 ProMindshift rotation180 Pro

The Mindshift rotation180 Professional is Mindshift's premier backpack.  This pack has been specially designed for nature photographers who spend much of their time hiking and exploring.  It features a rotating beltpack that provides quick access to your camera and lenses, as well as a larger interior compartment than can quickly be accessed without ever taking the pack off!  The rotation180 has everything I've been looking for in a photography backpack! 

In 2016 I spent 4 months traveling across the country on a photography expedition.  Every day I was out taking pictures, hiking in the mountains, searching for waterfalls, and hunting for wildlife.  Unfortunately, my “beginner's backpack” wasn’t cutting it.  I only had room for a camera, 3 lenses and my Lee Filters kit.  I was always making sacrifices on what gear to bring.  “If I leave the wide-angle lens in the car, I can bring the Macro lens.”  "If I hold my tripod, I can fit a water bottle in the side pocket."  This was not good!  I quickly learned that I should have invested in a better backpack.  

In 2017 I spent 3 months on another photography roadtrip, this time with the Mindshift rotation180 Pro.  The difference was amazing!  Now I had room for all the gear I needed, the pack was comfortable to wear, and the rotating feature was a game changer!  The rotation180 Pro made my life as a photographer so much easier, whether I was hiking in the mountains of Colorado, the deserts of Utah, or the forests of the Pacific Northwest.  Having used this pack extensively, I can confidently recommend it to any nature photographer.


Pack Size

The rotation180 is a 38L pack, the perfect size for a photographer who has a lot of gear.  Once the weather warmed up in April I was excited to finally put it to use!  I spent an afternoon collecting all of my camera equipment and laying it out.  I wanted to see just how much could fit in the Mindshift pack.  To my surprise, I was able to fit every single thing!  A Nikon D750, Tokina 100mm, Sigma 35mm, Tamron 150-600mm, Nikon 24-70mm, Nikon 14-24mm, ResQLink, tripod, Nalgene bottle, headlamp, and random camera accessories.  I never would’ve guessed that the Tamron 150-600mm would fit!  I even had enough room left over for some snacks.

main compartmentThe main compartment

Inside the rotating beltpack I can fit my Nikon D750 with a 24-70mm lens and my Big Stopper, Little Stopper, Landscape Polarizer, and filter holder for waterfall trips.  The beltpack also doubles as a workstation or table in the field.  It makes adding filters to my camera much easier, even when I'm standing in the middle of a creek.  The beltpack has removable inserts that allow you to customize the layout for your gear; you should be able to fit a camera body and four lenses with the default configuration.

BeltpackBeltpack interior - plenty of room!

Depending on your configuration, you can even use this pack for a quick overnight trip.  If you save the main compartment for camping gear, you can fit a single-person hammock, with straps, and a highly compressed sleeping bag.  There are enough straps on the outside to secure a sleeping pad too.  It may be a tight fit for camping gear, but then again, this is not designed for backpacking.

I am very impressed with just how much gear can fit into the rotation180!  I love the fact that I can now have my Tamron 150-600mm in my backpack if I happen to spot a wild animal when I'm out hiking!


Build Quality

Clearly a lot of thought has gone into every single aspect of this pack.  From the clips, to the rubber grips on the zippers, the separate rain cover specifically for the beltpack, and the magnetic lock on the rotating waistbelt.  Each piece of the pack appears to be made of the highest quality materials, no corners were cut.  Coming from just a standard photography backpack, this is a massive leap in quality!  I can't say enough good things about the durability of this pack.  The rotation180 is built to last!  

build quality The designers obviously spent a lot of time studying every aspect of a backpack.  I do a lot of backpacking with a Gregory Baltoro 70L, so I’m used to having a high quality backpack on long trips.  The rotation180 comes with a rain cover, has adjustable waist and shoulder straps, thick shoulder padding, a hydration reservoir, and plenty of pockets.  As I mentioned earlier, I tend to fill my packs to the brim with gear!  Even with a 70L pack, I find myself running out of room for my backpacking gear.  I'm thrilled that the rotation180, a 38L pack, has more than enough room for all of my camera gear.

The only flaw I've found in the rotation180's design is the lack of padding on the waistbelt.  The padding does not reach far enough forward, which leaves the bare straps uncomfortably tight on my hip bones.  That means I have to loosen the waistbelt, transferring most of the pack weight back to my shoulders.  I've also noticed the waistbelt tends to ride up and stay around my belly button, instead of staying around my hips.  Again, if you aren't tall and scrawny, this might not be an issue for you.

Hiking down the rough road to Crystal Mill   



The main feature of the rotation180 pro is the beltpack that slides out.  This gives you quick access to your camera / lenses / filters / anything you need.  I am able to fit my Nikon D750 with a Tokina 100mm attached in the middle, with a Nikon 24-70 and Sigma 35mm on the sides.  There's just enough room for 2 smaller lenses as well.  The beltpack also has a mesh pocket that I put my remote shutter and lens caps in.  With the removable divider pads, I can arrange the layout to fit multiple gear configurations.


I can also completely remove the beltpack and wear it by itself.  This is great when I need to get my gear safely in a tight space or hard to reach area.  For example, I had to climb up a cliff-face while in a harness, to photograph some rock climbers from above.  I was able to put my D750 and 2 lenses in the beltpack and climb up easily!   

I love how I can rotate the entire pack around and have easy access to the main compartment.  With my original backpack, I either had to handhold the telephoto lens all day or leave it in the car.  Always a compromise.... With the Mindshift, I can bring along my telephoto lens, and if I happen to see some wildlife, I can quickly switch lenses!  The rotation feature is truly a game changer! Great Horned OwlGreat Horned Owl


Tripod Placement

You may be wondering why something as mundane as tripod placement has its own section in this review.  Backpackers know how important it is to have a balanced pack weight.  If one side is heavier than the other you will have a sore back / shoulder by the end of the day.  One of the biggest problems I had with my original backpack was the tripod placement on the right side. After a long hike, the tripod would pull down on the right side of my pack, causing my shoulder to get sore.  Having an unbalanced pack is not fun!  This was honestly one of my biggest problems with that backpack.

I love how the Mindshift puts the tripod holder right in the middle of the pack.  No more uneven weight!  The rotation180 has a special sling that holds the tripod securely in place.  This frees up the side pockets for a Nalgene or anything else really.  Due to the rotating nature of the pack, I always have easy access to the tripod too!  

tripod placementGreat tripod placement!


A Portable Work Station

Imagine you're standing in ankle deep, fast moving water.  You need to take a long exposure using a polarizer and ND filter.  There's no safe, dry place around to put your pack.  I've had this issue numerous times, whether I'm on a steep ledge or in the middle of a creek.  In the past, I'd have to find someplace safe to put my pack, take out my gear, and setup my filters.  Then I'd head back out into the water, or climb back to my perch, with all my gear in-hand.  This was always very risky.

The rotation180 is my new assistant!  Since the pack can rotate around on my waist, I always have a mobile work station!  If I need to add my filter system, I have everything I need right in front of me.  It's like having a portable table and assistant with you at all times.  Just this past week I was photographing The Narrows, in Zion National Park.  I was able to easily and safely attach my Lee Filters Kit to my camera in the middle of the stream using this pack.  I could even switch lenses and use my 14-24mm with its massive Progrey 150mm filter system without any problems.  The rotation180 Pro has been a life saver on this trip!

The NarrowsThe NarrowsHiking through The Narrows in Zion National Park


My One and Only Complaint

My only complaint with this pack is the waistbelt.  For big backpacks, the waistbelt is supposed to sit right on the hip bones; this takes most of the pack's weight off of your shoulders and transfers it to your hips.  This makes hiking long distances much easier and comfortable.   My Gregory backpack has a large, padded waistbelt, which makes hiking long distances comfortable on my hip bones.  Unfortunately there isn't enough padding on the Mindshift.  The padding ends before it covers my hip bones.  In the image below you will see how much further the padding goes on my Gregory pack.

waist padding differencesNotice how the padding on the right pack stretches around to the front

I should mention I'm 6' 3" and pretty thin.  It's possible that this lack of padding may not be a problem for other people.  To be fair, the Gregory is a high-end backpacking pack.  It is built for carrying heavy loads long distances.  The Mindshift and the Gregory are two completely different beasts.  Still, it's something the designers can look into for the next iteration.

With all that being said, the pack is still comfortable to wear, even on long day hikes.  I had this pack on my back for countless hours over the past 3 months.  I can think of only 3 times where my shoulders started to get sore.  This was caused by the heavy load I was carrying combined with the fact that I couldn't tighten the waist belt down, to take pressure off my shoulders.  So, unless you're carrying your entire load of camera gear, including a 150-600mm lens, multiple other lenses, a 150mm filter system, 1 liter of water, extra clothes and a tripod, you shouldn't have any discomfort!


Final Thoughts

If you’re in the market for a new backpack, I would highly recommend the Mindshift rotation180 Pro.  The rotation feature is a game changer for photographers!!  You always have quick, easy access to all of your gear, without ever having to take off the pack!  The build quality is top-notch, almost every single part of the pack is well thought out.  Having spent years with a sub-par backpack, I'm honestly surprised just how much of a difference a high-quality backpack can make.  Having used this pack extensively for the past three months, I can confidently say this is a great investment!  If you do any kind of long exposure photography, or find yourself in difficult to shoot areas, the rotating pack feature is truly a game changer.  My only regret is not getting a Mindshift pack sooner!

Click here to visit Mindshift’s website.  By using this link you will receive Free Shipping and a Free Gift on all purchases!


[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) mindshift mindshift backpacks mindshift rotation mindshift rotation 180 pro photography photography backpacks review rotation180 think tank thinktank Mon, 20 Nov 2017 16:09:00 GMT
Star Tracker Tutorial

Tired of grainy Milky Way photos?  Don't want to spend $2,000 on a new wide angle lens?  A star tracker is the easiest, and most cost effective way to capture higher quality nightscapes!  Star trackers move the camera at the same speed as the stars, allowing you to take much longer photos without any star trails.  The key to this process is an accurate polar alignment.  The star tracker must be pointed directly at the North or South Pole (where the stars all rotate around).  Thankfully we have a few stars to help with a polar alignment - Polaris in the northern hemisphere, or the Sigma Octans in the southern hemisphere.  This tutorial will cover everything you need to know about using a star tracker, from choosing the correct model, to setting it up, and even post processing!

Before we get into the tutorial, I thought I'd show some images taken with the my iOptron Skytracker Pro and SkyGuider Pro

Picture saved with settings embedded.


Is There Really That Much of a Difference?

Many people have asked whether or not a star tracker really makes that much of a difference when doing Milky Way photography.  Especially considering the fact that there are great photo stacking applications that can reduce noise very efficiently.  In my experience, a properly aligned star tracker will have a massive impact on image quality.  Let's take a look at a few comparison images to see the difference.

In the comparison below, we are looking at an ISO 12800, f/2.8, 10 second image vs a tracked ISO 800, f/2.8, 4 minute image.  Even from afar, you can clearly see a difference in color and image quality.




Let's take a closer look next.  When zoomed in, the untracked image is a grainy mess, while the tracked image looks beautiful!  Notice too, how the magenta color in the Lagoon Nebula comes through much better in the tracked image.  One last thing to note - The tracked image was a 4 minute exposure.  I could take an even longer photo, up to probably 6 minutes, without star trails.  This would result in even more detail, color, and less grain.  However, the amount of Hot Pixels would increase too.






Choosing a Star Tracker

Choosing the correct star tracker can be quite difficult, especially if you're just getting into astrophotography.  With that in mind, I set out to create a comprehensive buying guide that will explain every aspect of a star tracker, and help you make the right choice!  First, let's name the four main star trackers currently available.  First up are the iOptron models - the SkyTracker Pro and SkyGuider Pro.  Next are the two trackers from  Sky-Watcher - the Star Adventurer and Star Adventurer Mini.   I've spent a considerable amount of time using each one of these trackers over the past few months, and I have learned a lot!  

I've recently created the ultimate star tracker buying guide, which looks at the different weight limits, polar scopes, accessories, designs, features, problems, and prices of the four main star trackers!  After you read through this article, you should be able to decide which star tracker is right for you!  Click here to read my Star Tracker Buying Guide.

Once you've picked the right star tracker, you'll need to learn how to use it!

iOptron SkyTracker ProiOptron SkyTracker Pro iOptron SkyGuider ProiOptron SkyGuider Pro Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer MiniSky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini Sky-Watcher Star AdventurerSky-Watcher Star Adventurer



Using the Star Tracker

One of the biggest problems with the star trackers is that they are somewhat difficult to use.  To make matters worse, the star tracker companies usually produce mediocre manuals and videos.  Plus, there aren't many good third-party tutorial videos on YouTube that show the full process.  Having struggled through this process myself, I wanted to create something that could help even the absolute beginner use a star tracker to its fullest potential. 

Over the past few months I've spent hundreds of hours working to create a series of tutorials for each star tracker.  My main goal with these courses is to teach you everything you need to know to create an amazing final image!  Regardless which tracker you have, I will show you how to set it up for wide angle nightscapes or deep space astrophotography.  We'll also cover the full polar alignment process, which camera settings to use, how to plan a photo shoot, and much more!  Of course, taking the images is only half the battle.  Therefore, I've included over 7 hours of Post-Processing lessons for each tracker.  These editing lessons will show you how to cleanly blend images together in Photoshop using my own personal technique.  If you're a beginner, don't worry!  I've included a series of videos specifically for beginners, which will show you how to use Photoshop, Camera RAW, and Bridge.

I guarantee you will feel much more comfortable using your star tracker and you will learn a lot about your camera, the night sky, Photoshop, and more!  You can check out the specific star tracker tutorials here.

In the video below, I explain the basics of using a star tracker for wide angle nightscapes.



Post Processing

While a star tracker will allow you to capture a much better image, you will need to blend two images together.  When the star tracker is turned on, the stars will be sharp, but your foreground will be blurry.  Therefore, you will always need two images to create a final photo.  If you are doing deep space astrophotography, you'll actually want to take dozens, if not hundreds, of photos.  Once you have a ton of photos, you can stack them together to reduce grain and bring out faint detail in your nebula or galaxy.

Over the past few months I've been hard at work creating a full-length Astrophotography Post-Processing Coursewhich will walk you through all of these different techniques and workflows.  This is by far the most comprehensive series of its kind!  

Once you have both images for your nightscape photo, you will need to blend them in post-processing.  This can be very difficult, unless you know the proper method.  After spending dozens of hours experimenting in Photoshop, I've developed my own personal blending workflow.  This method utilizes Luminosity Masks to create a very precise blend.  The best part is, you can do this process with a free Photoshop plugin.  If you are still new to Photoshop, don't worry!  I will walk you through the entire blending process in the Astrophotography Post-Processing Course.  Even a complete beginner will be able to quickly learn this technique and start blending their own images!

As I mentioned earlier, if you want to create an amazing deep space image, you will need to stack a lot of photos together.  However, stacking is just the beginning, and you'll need to know some special tricks to really make your astro images pop!  This is something I cover extensively in my new Deep Space Course.  This course was designed for anyone who's interested in taking photos of nebulae and galaxies, with just a DSLR, telephoto lens (or small telescope), and a tracker.  There are over 4 hours of post-processing tutorials included in the Deep Space Course.  I will walk you through my full workflow as I edit 10 of the best objects to photograph in the night sky.

Lastly, I'll also be doing a special "Challenge Peter" video each month!  If you've got some images you're having problems with, you can send them in and I'll try to edit them!  Once I've figured out the best approach, I'll record a new tutorial and upload it for everyone to enjoy.  This will be a fantastic way for everyone to learn some new tricks!


[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) andromeda galaxy astrophotography how to setup skytracker pro how to use star tracker ioptron long exposure milky way night nikon orion nebula photograph night sky photography polar alignment skyguider pro skytracker skytracker pro star tracker star tracker tutorial vixen polarie Tue, 14 Nov 2017 21:38:10 GMT
Telephoto Landscapes For the past three months I've been on the road exploring some of the most beautiful places in America.  From the Wind River Range to see the Great American Eclipse, to Maroon Bells for the first snowfall of the season, to the Pacific Coast!  Surprisingly, one of my most used lenses is the Tamron 150-600mm.  Many would consider this a wildlife lens, but I've had great success using it for landscapes as well. 

Recently, while exploring the mountains of Colorado, I've been using my 150-600mm for landscapes more than the 24-70mm or 14-24mm!  I find the telephoto range shows the majesty of these incredible mountains!  When using a wide angle lens, the mountains tend to appear small and forgettable.  A telephoto lens, when used properly, can show the massive mountains towering over the landscape. 

Keep in mind that a telephoto lens will compress vast distances.  Mountains that are dozens of miles away suddenly fill the frame!  In this image from Olympic national park, the distant mountains in Canada are now incorporated into the image.  A standard focal length would not have been able to produce this effect.  I have also been able to photograph mountains over 60 miles away using my 150-600mm!

Most epic landscape photos have a compelling foreground that draws the eye into the distance, whether that be flowers, rocks, or water.  If you find yourself in a relatively boring area, with no interesting foreground, it's the perfect time to use your zoom lens!  Personally, I tend to have trouble including a compelling foreground element in my wide-angle landscape photos.  That's why I love using a telephoto lens, which allows me to create a unique composition without a close foreground.


I love using my 150-600mm on cloudy days in the mountains!  The clouds slowly morphing, the occasional bursts of light.  Stormy days always make for epic photos.  When you are out in the field, look for storms! 

Driving through Colorado has proved somewhat difficult in framing compelling compositions.  Either there simply isn't a place to pull off the road, or the foreground is dull.  Not to mention the mountains are usually miles and miles away.  The 150-600mm solves that problem!  Now those distant mountains look massive in the viewfinder!  The unique focal length also provides many interesting compositions. 

A telephoto lens will also increase the apparent size of the sun and moon.  You can use this effect to capture some spectacular images!  This photo was taken near Bend Oregon, during the smoky wild fire season.  The sun was a pale red orb due to the thick wildfire smoke.  Without the 150-600mm, this image would not have been possible! 

Another benefit of using a telephoto lens is the ability to create high quality panoramas.  Instead of taking one photo, you can zoom in on your subject and take multiple photos.  The combined images will have a much higher resolution, perfect for large prints!  I use Microsoft Image Composite Editor (ICE) to blend all of my panoramas easily.  It’s critical to put the camera to Manual Mode and try to keep the camera moving in a straight line as you take your photos.  Of course, you’ll usually want to turn the camera to the Portrait orientation as well. 

When photographing telephoto landscapes, a small aperture is unnecessary!  Since the subject is usually very far away, depth of field is no longer a concern.  Even at f/2.8, everything is likely to be sharp!  No more shooting at f/16 to get everything in focus, or having to blend multiple photos in post processing. 

As you use a telephoto lens to zoom way across a landscape, eventually you will notice a strange phenomenon.  Your image is blurry, almost like it's boiling!  It’s the same phenomenon you’d see over a hot road during the summer.  Heat distortion.  As the air heats up, it rises into the colder air.  This causes refraction and leaves your images a blurry mess.  You will likely notice this effect over large expanses, whether that be an open field or body of water basking in the sun.  Keep in mind, this can happen during the winter too, since the effect is caused by a heat differential.  Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can really do to fix this situation. 

A fast shutter speed is often required for telephoto landscapes as well.  It’s important to remember the Reciprocal Rule, which states: The shutter speed should be the same as the focal length to reduce motion blur.  Therefore, at 600mm the shutter speed should be at least 1/640s to help reduce any motion blur.  Thankfully, most telephoto lenses have good stabilization.  This really helps to keep the image sharp, with a slower shutter speed.  Using a tripod will also help reduce this problem even further.  Believe it or not, I’ve been able to get tack-sharp photos at 600mm at 1/50s using the built-in stabilization and a tripod. 

Occasionally, the 150-600mm is simply too much lens!  In this case, it's the perfect time for the 70-200mm!  I had the opportunity to try out Tamron's latest 70-200mm for a few weeks on this trip.  I found that it has great stabilization, fast autofocus, and is considerably lighter than the 150-600mm!  Plus, with the constant f/2.8 aperture, low light is no longer an issue!

Using a telephoto lens, like the Tamron 150-600mm and 70-200mm, opens up a whole new world for landscape photographers!  The next time you head out into the field, try using your telephoto lens.  You might be surprised by what you are able to capture.

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) 150-600mm 70-200mm colorado landscapes lens photography tamron telephoto telephoto landscapes utah Wed, 08 Nov 2017 01:27:17 GMT
The Power of RAW

When many new photographers get their first DSLR, they tend to shoot in JPEG only.  Shooting in JPEG is an easy way to go, but you lose a lot of control over your final image.  RAW allows complete control over your images!

A RAW file is an unprocessed image, like a digital negative.  In the film days, a negative contained all the information to make photos from, but could not be used as the photo itself.  The same concepts applies to RAW.  You can't just upload a RAW image onto Facebook, it needs to be edited first.  Each camera company has their own proprietary RAW formats.  Nikon uses NEF while Canon uses CR2.  These RAW files contain all of the information captured by the camera, as opposed to JPEGs, which discard much of the info in favor of a smaller file size.

When shooting in JPEG, the camera will essentially take a RAW photo and then edit it based on your Picture Control settings. By default, most cameras have various profiles to choose from: Vivid, Landscape, Portrait, Flat, Standard, Neutral, and Monochrome.  You can adjust settings like saturation, sharpness, and contrast for each one of those profiles in your camera's menu.  Keep in mind, these settings only affect JPEGs.  They will have no effect on RAW files.

When people say "Oh, I don't edit my photos, that's cheating", they are often misinformed.  The camera is doing all the editing for them, based on an algorithm generated by an engineer.  They are willingly giving up their creative freedom for pre-defined settings.  With that being said, each RAW photo has to be edited before it can be saved as a final JPEG.  However, you have complete control now, instead of letting the camera make all the decisions.  Special editing software, like Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom is needed to edit the RAW photos.   

RAW files do take up much more space than JPEGS.  For example, RAW files on my Nikon D750 each take up about 24-27 MBs of space.  The JPEG files are usually around 12-15 MBs.  The RAW files contain all of the detail and information, whereas the JPEGs are heavily compressed and lossy, meaning they remove detail to keep the file size small.  One reason the RAW photos are so much larger is because they contain an extraordinary amount of dynamic range.  This allows you to recover amazing detail that would otherwise be lost! 


The Power of RAW 

Now that we understand the difference between RAW and JPEG, let's see if RAW is actually worth the extra hassle.  Below are two Before and After examples.  As you can see, the original photo was drastically underexposed.  Normally, this would be a big problem.  However, since I was shooting in RAW, a simple exposure increase in Adobe Camera RAW instantly fixed the photo!




I should mention that each camera has a different amount of dynamic range.  My D750 is one of the best performing cameras out there, in terms of dynamic range.  This allows me to recover a ton of detail if need be.  You may notice increased grain, purple tint, or color grain depending on your camera's dynamic range capabilities.  In my experience though, it's better to have a dark photo than an overly bright one.  

When shooting in RAW it's vital to preserve detail in the highlights.  As seen in the owl example, the shadows can easily be recovered with only a minor increase in grain.  However, if you blow out the highlights, they are impossible to recover!  All you will ever see is a bright white area.  The comparison below shows what happens when I attempt to fix the blown-out highlights.  No matter how much I underexposed the photo, a small portion of the sky was lost due to the highlights being clipped.




Whenever I'm photographing landscapes, I always check the histogram to ensure I'm not clipping the highlights.  It's critical that you enable the histogram on your camera's playback screen and utilize it!  For Nikon users, you can find this option in the Playback Menu.  I recommend only enabling the 'Overview' option.  This guide by Nikon guru Darrell Young shows you exactly how to enable this setting.  Once enabled, you can press 'Up' on the directional pad and it should show the Histogram.  If you notice a spike on the right side of the image, that indicates the highlights have been clipped.  You will need to adjust your camera's settings to darken the photo until the histogram no longer shows any clipped highlights.  You can then brighten the image in post-processing as needed.

RAW can also be used to easily fix the colors in your photos.  If you were using the wrong White Balance while shooting in JPEG, you will need to spend a considerable amount of time using Photoshop to fix the colors.  The white balance is baked into your JPEG photo, which is a pain to fix.  When using RAW, the White Balance isn't set until you're finished editing.  This gives you complete flexibility in post-processing!  You can easily drag the white balance slider and fine-tune the colors.  You can see how I was able to neutralize the overly-orange color cast in the photo below.  This took just a few seconds in Adobe Camera RAW!




Oddly enough, as I was writing this post I realized I didn't have a single JPEG photo straight out of my camera!  I always shoot in RAW!  Since I am on the road, it was the perfect time to capture some JPEG test images.  Below are 3 examples that clearly illustrate the difference between RAW and JPEG.

Example 1

The original photos were underexposed by 5 Stops.  I brightened both the RAW and JPEG photos in Adobe Camera RAW by increasing the Exposure slider by 5 stops.  As you can see, the colors are distorted in the JPEG version.



Example 2

This example is a close-crop of Example 1.  If you look closely, you will see an ugly color-grain all over the JPEG photo.  This shows how much data is lost when the JPEG photo is brightened.  The RAW photo retains much more detail without any color-grain.



Example 3

This example showcases why RAW is crucial for white balance adjustments.  When I changed the JPEG's white balance slightly, the highlights quickly lost all detail.  There was no quality loss when changing the RAW file's white balance!




Final Thoughts

Now that you've seen just how powerful the RAW format can be, give it a try!  I recommend switching your camera to shoot in RAW+JPEG.  Now you have access to the JPEGs, but you can also practice editing the RAW files.  Once you get comfortable editing your RAW photos, switch over to just RAW.  There's no reason to have duplicate JPEGs floating around now!

You can get a free trial for Adobe Photoshop CC over at Adobe's websiteClick here to also make sure you download the latest version of Adobe Camera RAW.  I would also recommend purchasing the Adobe CC Photographer's Bundle if you decide you want to start shooting in RAW.  This includes Photoshop, Camera RAW, and Lightroom for $10 per month!

I recently created a full Adobe Camera RAW tutorial that will explain each piece of this incredible software!  Be sure to follow along with some of your own photos!

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) adobe camera raw exposure jpeg jpeg vs raw nef nikon photography photoshop picture control raw shoot in raw underexposed white balance Sun, 05 Nov 2017 16:18:26 GMT
Waterfalls and Wildfires After witnessing the Great American Eclipse, I had some free time to kill before the fall colors came to Colorado.  Without hesitation, I knew I wanted to see the Pacific Northwest again.  It is, by far, one of my favorite places in the entire country.  Little did I know what was about to unfold...

For the entire duration of my roadtrip, wildfire smoke has been a major problem.  Even in South Dakota, the sun was nearly blocked out by the thick clouds of smoke at sunset!  This intense smoke was casting a pall over the entire country!

En route to Bend, Oregon I stopped at Craters of the Moon.  I really didn't know what to expect, but I had heard good things!  While driving through the barren Idaho landscape at twilight, I felt like I was a traveler on a distant planet.  I could see vast mountain ranges, weird rock outcroppings, and circles of light on the horizon.  It reminded me of human colonies on a foreign world.  The next morning I finished the drive to Craters of the Moon.  As I approached the park entrance I saw black fields of lava stretching off for miles.  This park is centered around some volcanoes that erupted years ago.  Craters of the Moon's main attractions are the numerous caves.  One cave requires you to crawl in, while another has high ceilings and goes on for quite a while!  It was really cool to experience these ancient lava caves, which brought cool relief on a hot summer day!

Beauty CaveBeauty Cave
Indian TunnelIndian Tunnel

Lava RockLava Rock My next destination was Bend, Oregon.  The drive was largely uneventful, until sunset.  The wildfires and smoke caused a hellish sunset in the badlands of Oregon.  I couldn't believe my eyes!

I spent the next day exploring Bend, but quickly realized it was too hot and too dry for my liking.  It was time to continue on to the Columbia River Gorge!  Along the way, I stopped at Trillium Lake, near Mount Hood.  On my 2016 roadtrip I came here for sunrise, but thick clouds shrouded Mount Hood entirely.  Thankfully the skies were clear on this night.  Some people even lit a campfire, which seemed awfully ill-advised, considering the current wildfire situation.  Surprisingly, no rangers showed up.
Trillium Lake - MidnightTrillium Lake - MidnightThe Milky Way over Trillium Lake in northern Oregon
The following morning I watched a relatively uneventful sunrise at Trillium Lake and continued on to the Columbia River Gorge.  The weather forecast was calling for 100+ degree temps the whole week!  I thought the PNW was supposed to be cool and rainy!

Trillium LakeTrillium LakeA serene morning at Trillium Lake, in northern Oregon. Mount Hood can be seen reflecting in the calm water
It felt great to be back in the Columbia River Gorge, my favorite place in the country.  Towering, ancient trees covered in moss.  Steep canyons.  Lush waterfalls.  Home.  Of course I re-visited my favorite waterfalls, including: Panther Creek Falls, Spirit Falls, Falls Creek Falls, Wahclella Falls, Oneonta Falls, and more!  

Falls Creek Falls

Spirit Falls

I even had the opportunity to do the Lower Oneonta Gorge hike!  This hike follows the gorge up over a massive logjam and through 4+ feet deep water to the waterfall itself.  Golden light streamed down through the top of the canyon, lighting up the canyon walls!

Oneonta GorgeOneonta GorgeSunlight streams down into Oneonta Gorge
I also visited Lower Lewis Falls for the first time.  I had originally seen a photo of this beautiful spot from a local photographer, Brad Lee Dale.  The view was magnificent!  The water glowed in the golden afternoon light, almost like a painting!  The area around the falls was very unique.  A massive rock shelf allows people to walk around near the falls, in ankle deep water.  For the next hour I tried finding different compositions, hoping to get the perfect shot before the light faded.  

As I was walking to another spot, I slipped on the rocks and fell forward, tripod and camera in hand.  My tripod leg extended out and completely broke off, causing me to fall in the water.  Thankfully I managed to hold my camera an inch above the water, while banging up my knees in the process.  After assessing the damage, I realized my tripod was a total loss.  That meant no more waterfall photos, Milky Way photos, or anything else really.  Bruised and defeated, I drove back to Stevenson Washington.

Don't Buy a Gitzo!!

After 2 days off, waiting for my new tripod to arrive, I was ready to head back into the wilderness!  Now I could get back into the Columbia River Gorge and see my favorite waterfalls again!

Fairy FallsFairy FallsFairy Falls is one of many waterfalls found in the Columbia River Gorge
Unfortunately, I've got a very tight schedule.  I need to be back in Colorado by mid-September for the fall colors, which doesn't leave a lot of time to explore Oregon and Washington.  I now realize I should've devoted more time to this majestic place.  Within days of leaving the Columbia River Gorge I was shocked and saddened to see it had caught fire!!  Apparently some teenagers were throwing firecrackers into Punchbowl Falls, which sparked the massive blaze.  Hopefully the damage isn't catastrophic, but after seeing images of the blaze, it's hard to imagine a different outcome.

Without realizing what was happening in the Gorge, I began the long drive down the Oregon coast.  Of course, I had to stay a night in Astoria, where the Goonies was filmed.  The next day I drove down the coast to Tillamook, Oregon.  If you are passing through, be sure to stop at the Tillamook Cheese Factory.  They have excellent cheese, ice cream, yogurt, and sandwiches!  

For sunset, I drove over to Oceanside.  While I was photographing the waves, I noticed a tunnel in the massive rock wall at the north end of the beach.  Intrigued, I went over to check it out.  Apparently someone had blasted a hole all the way through, to a hidden beach on the other side!  

I spent another night sleeping in my car, on the side of the road.  Thankfully I found a quiet spot up by the Heceta Lighthouse.  The crashing sounds of the waves put me to sleep pretty quickly.  I awoke early the next morning, ready to continue my drive through Oregon.  Just south of Lincoln City, the sky became grey again; more wildfire smoke.  The smoke became so thick, it nearly blotted out the sun.  The next 1,000 miles driving down Highway 1 and 101 were through heavy wildfire smoke!  I was shocked to see just how extensive this problem was.  2017 is turning out to be a horrible year.  It seems the entire Western US is burning down.

Since it was Labor Day weekend, nearly every beach was crowded with people.  Not wanting to deal with crowds, I just kept on driving.  When I finally arrived in Brookings, Oregon, the smoke was unreal!  It looked like Silent Hill!  One of the locals mentioned the smoke had been this bad for weeks!  I couldn't imagine living in perpetual smoke for so long.  When I was here last year, Brookings was in the path of a massive typhoon.  It seems that water and fire are the great destroyers.  

1,000+ miles in 2 days has left me near LA.  I'm currently visiting my good friend Mo and her awesome dog, Jareth!  I met them in Colorado, at Mesa Verde National Park, on my last roadtrip.  My next destination is Colorado, where I plan to spend the rest of September and early October photographing the fall colors.

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) coast columbia river gorge falls creek falls highway 1 lower lewis falls nature photography nikon oneonta falls oregon pacific coast panther creek falls spirit falls sunset wahclella falls washington waterfalls wildfires Mon, 11 Sep 2017 18:52:53 GMT
Great American Solar Eclipse On June 14th I found the perfect spot to watch the Solar Eclipse: Square Top Mountain, in the Wind River Range.

Using a photo I'd seen from the Wind River Range in Wyoming, and Google Earth to pinpoint the exact coordinates, I began to plan my Solar Eclipse photoshoot.  If you look closely, you'll see a dead tree hanging over the river.  Using Google Earth, I looked along this creek until I saw the exact same dead tree.  Then I found the coordinates, and input them into my phone's map.  Next I used Stellarium and a few other apps to determine where the sun would be in relation to the landscape.  Finally, I looked up what time the eclipse would happen at this exact spot.  Everything lined up perfectly!

2 months and 1 week later the day had finally arrived!  On Sunday afternoon I set out into the backcountry with my friend Amanda, who I met on my roadtrip last year.  We both travel all over the West, going on adventures and living out of our cars.  Except she has found a way to still have a full-time, good-paying job and live this lifestyle!  (It involves 12 hour shifts at a genetics lab!)

The hike to the location was beautiful, it reminded me of photos from Patagonia.  We hiked for 7 miles through this scenic landscape until we reached the exact coordinates. A dream had turned into reality. The photo I kept seeing in my mind was now in front of me.  Unfortunately, two people were already camped out there!  I forgot to mention we saw literally hundreds of cars parked all along the dirt road leading up to the trailhead, it was a miracle Amanda and I even found each other.  Apparently this was a popular Solar Eclipse Spot!  Thankfully, the two campers were nice and let us stay with them.  Turns out, one worked at the outdoors store in Jackson and the other was an actor visiting from LA.  We were all photographers though, so we had a lot in common.  We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in the mountains, anxiously awaiting the upcoming eclipse.

After a cold and cloudy morning, the sky cleared just in time!  The sun rose over the mountain landscape by 9:30AM.  At 10:17am the moon began its journey over the sun.

5 other hikers stood with us and watched the spectacle, all in awe.

One thing no-one expected was the change of light. It was like living in an underexposed, flat photo. The once harsh light was suddenly dim and grey. As the moon continued to drift across the sun, the temperature began to drop, shadows became razor sharp, weird eclipse shadows started to form everywhere, and a boiling hazy shadow swept over the ground.

At 11:37am the Total Eclipse began. I took off my glasses and saw the last flash of light! Suddenly the landscape became dark and the stars began to shine. The white corona was easily seen glowing around the sun.

Everyone started to scream and shout and we were all in amazement. 2 minutes went by way too fast, and suddenly the sun was shining bright again.  All we could think about was "When and where is the next eclipse?!"


The Total Eclipse Sequence:


Click here to see all of the photos from the Solar Eclipse and our campsite in the Wind River Range.

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) august 21st solar eclipse nikon photography solar eclipse tamron total eclipse wind river range wyoming Fri, 25 Aug 2017 19:02:03 GMT
Yellowstone National Park The past few times I've been out West, Yellowstone was never a major destination.  It was always much too crowded with tourists.  While planning this roadtrip, I realized that Yellowstone is home to the darkest skies in America!  Yellowstone would be the perfect spot for Milky Way photography!  I had also heard Yellowstone was a great place to watch for wildlife. Unfortunately, things don't always go as planned.  

What I failed to account for was the massive amounts of wildlife smoke blanketing the country.  I captured the images below during sunrise, on my way from Cody to Yellowstone. 

Upon arriving in Yellowstone, I made a quick list of places I wanted to photograph.  Yellowstone Falls, Grand Prismatic, Mammoth Hotsprings, Old Faithful, and of course some wildlife!  The standard tourist checklist.


Yellowstone Falls

After 4 busloads of Asian tourists overran the viewpoint, I was ready to move on.  My next stop was the brink of the upper falls.  This provided a unique look at the waterfall!


Norris Geyser Basin

Next, I visited the Norris Geyser Basin, an other-worldly place filled with bubbling pits, cyan-colored water, and bleached white landscapes.  The trail consists of a boardwalk through the hot springs.  As a trail builder myself, I couldn't imagine trying to build this one!


Grand Prismatic, Morning Glory, and Old Faithful

The following morning I visited Grand Prismatic.  The walk around the hotspring was interesting, but I wanted a better vantage point.  I heard someone shouting and looked up.  Apparently there was an overlook with the perfect view!  I ran back to the car and drove down the road, looking for a possible trailhead to the overlook.  

Grand Prismatic

Grand Prismatic Overlook

Since Old Faithful wasn't too far away, and there were some hotsprings along the trail, I decided to hike there.  Along the way I saw some incredible hotsprings and geysers!

Morning Glory

Old FaithfulOld FaithfulThe Old Faithful geyser erupts on a summer afternoon in Yellowstone National Park After walking a few miles, I was really starting to feel it!  Clearly I had spent too much time sitting around back in Ohio.  I was not looking forward to the hike back to the car.  As I neared the Old Faithful Geyser, the Old Faithful Inn loomed ominously over the landscape.  They should've made 'The Shining' here!  The lobby provided a nice place to relax after a long day and I soon realized I desperately needed my first shower of the trip.  To my surprise, the hotel had free showers that anyone could use!  I just had to hike back to the car first...

Old Faithful Inn

Now that I had explored most of the geyser portion of Yellowstone, I wanted to see some wildlife!  It was a rainy morning and I had a long drive ahead of me.  Unfortunately, the main road from Old Faithful to Mammoth Hot Springs was under construction.  The wet, bumpy, and muddy road was open however.  Better than taking the long way around...


Mammoth Hot Springs

By 8am I was exploring Mammoth Hot Springs.  The low-hanging grey clouds complimented the alien landscape nicely!  


Lamar Valley

Lamar Valley is home to a wide-range of wildlife, including: bison, coyotes, bears and wolves!  While driving through the valley, I came upon a horde of people parked alongside the road.  As I slowly made my way through the gridlock, I overhead that a bison carcass was in a field across the river.  Tons of photographers were staked out with their telephoto lenses and tripods, waiting for the perfect shot.  While stopped in traffic, I stuck my camera out the window and fired off a few shots.  A wolf was eating the carcass!

Since I hate dealing with crowds, I just kept on driving.  Eventually I found a quiet pull-off to relax in and have a snack.  Suddenly, 3 bison came over the nearby hillside, charging straight at my car!!  My camera wasn't within reach, I just sat and watched in amazement.  The bison came within 20 feet of the car before crossing the road.  I watched them keep on running, until they disappeared over a hill.

Now that the excitement was over, I went back to snacking.  About 20 minutes later, a lone bison was running towards my car again.  He didn't seem like he was in a good mood!  This time I was ready for him!


The Milky Way

After nearly a week in the park, the night sky was finally looking good for some Milky Way photography!  Before I left Ohio, I purchased a Star Tracker.  This device allows me to take much longer photos at night, without any star motion.  Normally, I am limited to exposures of 8 - 20 seconds without a tracker.  Any longer than that, and the stars will show movement.  The Star Tracker moves the camera at the same speed as the stars (technically Earth's rotation speed), which allows me to take photos upwards of 4 minutes long, a massive increase in light gathering!

As I gazed up at the glowing band of stars, I felt like I could reach out and grab the heavens.  The stars looked so close!  A calm puddle of water beneath my feet reflected the sky above.  As I peered down into the abyss, I felt as if I would fall into another universe.

Yellowstone Lake

After a week in Yellowstone, I had captured just about everything on my list.  I'm still bummed I didn't get any grizzly photos though...

The Solar Eclipse was rapidly approaching, so I began making my way through Yellowstone and down to the Grand Tetons.  I spent my last day at the shores of Yellowstone Lake.  At sunset, I found an overlook with a boundless view in all directions.  Shockingly, the Grand Tetons were visible on the horizon, even though they were over 70 miles away!

After sunset, I waited for the stars to come out.  All alone, on top of a desolate mountain.  While I was taking some close-up photos of the galaxies, I started hearing weird noises coming from the forest below.  It sounded like the entire forest was crashing down in the distance!  At first I thought it was a geothermal event.  Then I heard the iconic sound of an elk.  Turns out it was just two bull elk battling in the night, their antlers colliding with incredible force.

Once that excitement died down, I got back to work.  I was amazed at the detail I was able to capture with just a 100mm Macro lens (normally used for insects and flowers) and the Star Tracker.  The 2 galaxies below are millions of light years away!  Believe it or not, you can see both the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies with your naked eye, provided you find a truly dark sky.  They both look like faint blobs of light though.

Andromeda Galaxy Triangulum Galaxy

The next morning I stopped at the West Thumb, home to the most stunning hot spring in the whole park!  And with that, it's off to the Grand Tetons!


Click here to see the rest of the images from Yellowstone!

[email protected] (Peter Zelinka) grand prismatic lamar valley mammoth hotsprings milky way morning glory nature photography nikon old faithful photography wildlife yellowstone yellowstone falls yellowstone national park Fri, 18 Aug 2017 18:22:00 GMT
The Next Adventure For the past 9 months I've been back in Ohio, working part-time at the local camera shop and teaching lessons.  The road had been calling me for a while and I knew I had to get back out there.  The upcoming Total Solar Eclipse provided the perfect opportunity to hit the road!  My overall plan is to enjoy the eclipse in Wyoming, drive down to Colorado for the fall colors, explore Utah, and arrive back in Ohio by November.  

I left Ohio on a stormy Friday afternoon, it felt weird leaving everything behind again.  The drive was incredibly boring, as expected.  I was surprised how ridiculous the tolls were!  It cost me around $50 in tolls to drive from Youngstown, Ohio to Rockford, Illinois!!  That's another reason why I love the west, no absurd tolls along the highway! 

As I was driving through South Dakota, I noticed what looked like a castle wall on the horizon, rising up from an otherwise flat landscape.  It was actually the start of the Badlands!  I arrived at Badlands National Park on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.  The sun was already low on the horizon, providing some nice, soft light.  In 2012 we had driven through here on the way home from my first backpacking trip out West.  It was 110 degrees at the time!!  Needless to say, we got out of the car at one overlook for 5 minutes and then got out of there!  This time the weather was perfect, with temps somewhere in the 60's.